I think that drone pilots are the adventurous sort. This means that we want to take our drones with us on our adventures. Whether we want to capture the awe-inspiring view or get a third person perspective of our rock climbing or adventure sport activities drones are perfect for capturing that footage. Sometimes, we want to head up into the mountains with our drone. Obviously we want the trip to be safe for us and our drone so questions like can I fly my drone in the mountains? Can I fly at high altitudes? Will my drone battery drain faster? Pop into our minds. In this article, we will go over everything you need to know about flying your drone in the mountains and at high altitudes.
You can fly a drone in the mountains provided that the mountains are not above approximately 13,000 feet. At very high altitudes the drone will be harder to control, the battery life will be slightly lower, and there may be a significant increase in updraught power due to the geography.
The higher that you go into the mountains the increased altitude changes the properties of the air and this can affect drone flight and stability.
There are also significant safety reasons for why you would want to fly your drone in the mountain. In one example – published in the scientific literature – a consumer drone was able to locate a mountain air after he and his climbing partner were separated whilst climbing the world’s 12th highest peak – Broad Peak in the Karakoram Mountains of northeastern Pakistan.
Not only did the drone go up to an incredible height the wind was approximately 40 km/h and the ambient air temperature was -10 degrees Celsius.
Once the victim was found the drone was able to hover in till the victim acknowledge the presence of the drone with a wave. The victim had enjoyed 36 hours at 7600 m which is near the death zone due to its high mortality rates caused by the thin air.
This is an excellent example of how high a drone can fly in order to carry out a flight mission. However, flying in high altitudes does have a certain impact on the flight and safety of the drone.
Let’s take a look at what flying in high altitudes does to drone flight.
Flying in high altitudes
As you go to higher and higher altitudes with your drone the air quality changes dramatically.
The physics of high altitude flight
The main issue with a drone flying at high altitudes is that the propellers must still be able to force enough air downwards to produce lift. Because the air is much thinner there is less air to force downwards and the propellers have to work harder in order to keep the drone in a stable hover.
A typical helicopter can compensate for this thin air by increasing the pitch of the blade. Whereas, a drone cannot change the pitch of its blade and therefore increase its operational ceiling.
When the blades of the drone are no longer able to produce lift the drone is unable to climb any higher and, in aviation, this point is called the maximum service ceiling.
Mountain ranges and height
As we have seen, above, the maximum service ceiling of consumer drones is approximately 5000 m above sea level.
Here are a few common mountain ranges which are popular with tourists and their maximum height in metres and feet.
|Mountain range||Height metres||Height feet|
|Mount Logan – Canada||5959||19551|
|Mount Fiji – Japan||3776||12388|
|Mauna Kea – US||4207||13802|
|Aoraki / Mt Cook – New Zealand||3724||12218|
|Machu Picchu – Peru||2720||8924|
|Table Mountain – South Africa||1086||3563|
|Denali Peak – Alaska||6190||20308|
|Dolomites – Italy||3343||10968|
You will see that only Mount Everest is significantly above the service ceiling of the majority of consumer drones. However, even Mount Everest is not out of reach for drone pilots.
In this YouTube video you can see that people were able to fly there drone and capture some incredible footage.
The team took a DJI Phantom and a TurboACE Matrix drone for the adventure.
In 2019 a 39 year old professional mountaineer and film maker took a drone to Mount Everest to take a 360° panorama for National Geographic.
He had spent eight months planning for the moment and calculated that he’d only have 15 minutes to capture the 360° photo. The propellers were omitting a very high-pitched whine is a struggle to gain altitude in such thin air.
One thing to notice is that you are very much at the mercy of the air. Up and down drafts are sometimes so heavy that you could lose the drone in the blink of an eye.
The photographer worked with the drones manufacturer, DJI, to unlock certain safety features which allows it to descend quickly and operate further away from the pilot. This means that commercial drones have some ascending and descending acceleration and rates that are hardcoded into the software which will significantly impact your ability to climb quickly and use the battery most efficiently.
Highest Drone flights
Other than the heroic efforts of flying a drone to the top of Everest which is approximately 8849 m, there are plenty of other people who are willing to risk legal action and destroying their drone in order to fly as high as possible.
Here are some of the highest flights that have been achieved and posted on YouTube.
|Drone and link||Highest flight|
|Parrot AR drone||473 m, 1000 feet|
|Self-made drone||33,000 feet|
|First person view drone||3000 m|
|DJI Mavic Pro Platinum||8000 m|
|DJI Mavic Pro||8200 feet, 2500 m|
You can see that the maximum service ceiling of the drones can be pushed to up to 8000 m with no issues. The only issue is that battery power may be reduced and you run the risk of running the battery down to 0 which can severely damage the battery – causing it to be irreversibly damaged.
The dangers of flying at high altitudes
The primary reason that your drone will become unstable at high altitudes is the quick drop in air pressure. If you want to know more about the risk of flying a drone to high check out my other article – what is the risk of flying a drone to high? Click here to be taken to article.
As you go higher into the atmosphere the air pressure reduces. The air pressure reduces because there are fewer and molecules down at sea level. This is the reason why mountaineers need supplemental oxygen when climbing high peaks. There are simply less oxygen molecules at higher altitudes.
As you fly your drone higher and higher you will likely see that you suffer from stability issues and if you go high enough your drone will stop being able to climb as it cannot move the propellers fast enough to displace enough air downwards to climb any higher.
Because each movement the drone makes depends on the propellers moving air, the fewer number of air molecules which are available to move the harder it is for the drone to fly stop this manifests as stability issues were also slow and sluggish response to joystick movements.
You can see in a number of YouTube videos that the maximum altitude that the drones reach often correlates with its lowest stability flight.
Humidity changes significantly as you fly higher. The relative humidity can become greater as you gain altitude because you enter areas in which clouds are forming. But, in general it becomes less as you ascend to higher altitudes. Most of the water vapor is at lower altitudes.
The relative humidity is about 78% near the surface of the earth and about 44% at 4.2 km up.
As you are flying your drone higher and higher through varying humidity you run the risk of having water condensate on the electronic components of the drone as well as on the inside lens and camera.
The various metals and composite’s that are used in a drones construction respond differently to temperatures because of their specific heat capacity. If the temperature of the surroundings drops dramatically the metallic parts of the drone will also reduce in temperature quickly.
If this corresponds with a high humidity area a significant amount of moisture can collect on the drone surface and the surface of the electronic components.
Loss of remote connection
As you fly higher and higher the connection between your drone and its remote control will get weaker. The strength of the connection between the drone and the controller depends on the type of technology that is being used. When you are flying straight up there is generally a direct line of sight (unless you are flying through clouds) which means that we can ignore environmental factors such as buildings and other direct line of sight obstructions.
If you want to know more about how far away a drone can fly from its controller check out my other article where I compare all of the most popular manufacturers’ stated ranges and compare that to the independent range tests performed on YouTube.
When you are flying in mountainous areas the wind conditions and the unpredictability of the weather can be your biggest enemy.
The complicated geographical and geological structures can easily cause strong updraughts which can severely impact your stability and drones safety. This is because its vertical maximum speed is severely limited compared to its horizontal maximum speed. In other words, your drone is able to withstand buffeting and wind gusts from the side but is not able to withstand significant wind gusts forcing it up and down.
As noted by the photographer who managed to get a 360° view of Mount Everest.
Get the best shots in the mountains with your drone
Getting the best shots in the mountains will require you to learn how to pilot in slightly more challenging conditions whilst also framing the shop for the greatest impact on your viewer.
Here are a few tips for getting the best shots you possibly can in mountain ranges:
- take multiple batteries – as mentioned throughout this article you can significantly reduce the battery performance at high altitudes since the propellers have to work harder to continue to climb. Taking multiple batteries will significantly extend your ability to play around with shots and take the time pressure away from the flight mission.
- neutral density filters – take a full selection of neutral density filters with you. Being high up can quite often cause a significant amount of glare on the camera lens and this means that the shots can sometimes become overexposed. Using neutral density filters will enable you to increase the shutter speed without over exposing the photo.
- use a landing pad – a landing is fantastic for taking off on mountains. Typically, on the top of a mountain there are loads of loose rocks and dust. These small rocks and dust may not seem like much but they can chip blades and they can also work their way into Gimbal components causing them to malfunction. Using a cheap landing pad enables you to take off and land safely even in the most challenging of environments stop
- HDR images – Time is of the essence and using HDR on your drone enables you to take three photos at different exposures and combine them for a high dynamic range image. This ensures that you will be able to capture a perfectly exposed image every time. By combining the photos you are also able to balance out areas of extreme exposure and low exposure into one well-balanced photo.
In this article, we have covered all of the issues that can arise when you are flying your drone in the mountains. The manufacturers of drones state that the drone has a maximum service ceiling of approximately 5000 metres but, we have seen drones being flown up to 8000 m with no devastating loss of stability or manoeuvrability.
You may experience a reduced battery capacity as the motors work harder to force air downwards but, overall, you will find that the drone behaves only a little bit differently.
Flying your drone in the mountains enables you to capture some incredible shots because of the already elevated altitude which you have as your takeoff and landing spot.
Mountains provide an incredible backdrop for nearly every type of drone shot and can really allow you to show the grandeur of mountain ranges.