How Far Can Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) Fly?

Military fixed-wing UAVs can fly at an average range of 3,866km (2,402mi). Unmanned military rotorcraft can fly at an average range of 460.7km (286.3mi). Its design, powerplant, and control method are some factors that limit this range.

The maximum range these military UAVs can attain varies on several factors which we will be talking about below.

We’ll also look at a comparison between manned vs unmanned military fixed-wing and rotorcraft maximum flight range, some of the different types of military UAVs, and some examples of some military UAVs with the longest range.

Take note that most military unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are built to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

Manned vs Unmanned Military Aircraft Range Comparison

We’ve separated this section according to the design of the aircraft. These consist of the fixed-wing and rotorcraft designs.

Manned military fixed-wing aircraft have an average range of 5,500km (3417.5mi) whereas military fixed-wing UAVs have an average range of 4865.8km (3023.5mi).

Both manned and unmanned military rotorcraft consist of the single rotor helicopter and multi-rotor designs.

Manned military rotorcraft have an average range of 563.3km (350mi) whereas unmanned military rotorcraft have an average range of 460.7km (286.3mi).

Take note that hybrid VTOL aircraft with both the winged and bladed designs have been excluded from the above averages.

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Types Of Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

Military UAVs can be classified in many different ways. They are most often labelled as HALE or MALE drones.

  • Medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) – up to 9,000m (29,528ft)
  • High-altitude long-endurance (HALE) – over 9,000m (29,528ft)

Below are more specific ways to categorize military UAVs besides just their altitudes and unspecified endurance.

Here are 4 ways to categorize military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs):

  • DoD UAS classification system
  • Range
  • Design
  • Function

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Types of military UAVs according to altitude, speed and weight (DoD UAS classification system)

Here is the Department of Defense UAS ‘group’ system:

GroupMaximum Weight (Kg/lbs)Nominal Flight Altitude (m/ft)Speed (kph/mph)
10-9.1kg (0-20lbs)Less than 366m AGL (<1,200ft AGL)Up to 185.2km/h (115.1mph)
29.5-25kg (21-55lbs)Less than 1,067m AGL (<3,500ft AGL)Less than 463km/h (<288mph)
3Less than 599kg (<1,320lbs)Less than 5486.4m MSL (<18,000ft MSL)Less than 463km/h (<288mph)
4More than 599.2kg (>1,321lbs)Less than 5486.4m MSL (<18,000ft MSL)Any speed
5More than 599.2kg (>1,321lbs)More than 5486.4m MSL (>18,000ft MSL)Any speed
DoD group UAS classification system

AGL: Above ground level

MSL: Mean sea level

Take note that an aircraft that attains even a single feature in the next group up is considered to be part of that higher group.

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UAV sizes can be further broken down more accurately according to their weight. These consist of:

  • Very small UAVs – Nano+Micro
  • Small UAVs – Mini
  • Medium UAVs
  • Large UAVs

Nano drones (Very small category) consist of UAVs that weigh up to 250g (up to 8.8oz) in general.

Microdrones (Very small category) consist of UAVs that weigh between 251g to 2kg (8.9oz to 4.4lbs).

Mini drones (Small category) consist of UAVs that weigh between 2.1-25kg (4.6-55.1lbs).

Medium drones consist of UAVs that weigh between 25.1-150kg (55.3-331lbs).

Large drones consist of UAVs that weigh over 151kg (over 333lbs).

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Types of military UAVs according to range

Here are the 4 types of military UAVs according to range:

  • Close-range UAVs – Up to 50km
  • Short-range UAVs – Between 51-160km
  • Mid-range UAVs – Over 200km
  • Long-range/Endurance UAVs – Indefinite range

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Types of military UAVs according to design

Here are the 4 primary types of UAVs according to design:

  • Fixed-wing design
  • Multi-rotor design
  • Single rotor design
  • Hybrid VTOL design

Other less common or rarely used designs include designs used by unmanned airships and unmanned gliders.

UAVs that use the fixed-wing design resemble traditional manned commercial aircraft as they have a set of wings. This is the most common design used by many military drones.

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UAVs that use the multi-rotor design are drones with 3 or more propellers. These types of drones include tricopters (3 props), quadcopters (4 props), hexacopters (6 props), and octocopters (8 props).

UAVs that use the single rotor design resemble helicopters as they only have a single main rotor with a small tail rotor.

UAVs that use the hybrid VTOL design are drones that have combined both the fixed-wing and rotary-wing designs (both single and multi-rotor) into one aircraft.

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Types of military UAVs according to function

Military UAVs can be used for various applications.

Here are 6 types of military UAVs according to function:

  • Intelligence
  • Surveillance
  • Reconnaissance
  • Target aquisition
  • Decoy
  • Research and development

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What Factors Impact The Maximum Range A Military UAV Can Attain

It should be no surprise that the primary factor that impacts the maximum range an unmanned aerial system can attain depends on how it’s built.

This includes how it’s designed and what it’s designed for.

Here are 6 factors that impact military UAV range:

  • Control method
  • Payload
  • Design
  • Method of propulsion
  • Size and weight
  • Operating altitude

How does the control method affect military UAV range?

The UAV’s control method is one of the most important factors that directly impacts the maximum range the UAV can travel.

Mobile or ground control stations (GCS) use data links to communicate with Military UAVs.

Large control stations and small hand-held UAV controllers act as transmitters that the operator can use to control and monitor the UAV from a distance using a data link (transmits data from one point to another) that transports data quickly from the control station to the receiver on the UAV.

There are different types of data links and different frequencies UAVs use to achieve different transmission distances.

How does payload affect military UAV range?

The UAV’s payload is another important factor for drones that have to transport their own fuel as well as other payloads such as heavy cameras and sensors.

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A good balance between the total weight of the UAV and the power its propulsion system can generate must be calculated in order to determine how far it can travel.

This will all depend on the UAV’s payload capacity which will be determined by the manufacturer after lengthy testing.

How does the design affect military UAV range?

Design is also very important as some UAV designs are much more efficient than others.

Fixed-wing UAVs gain most of their lift from pressure differences in the air.

High pressure pushes against the underside of the wing moving towards low pressure on the top of the wing which generates more and more lift the faster the aircraft travels.

Propellers on rotary-wing UAVs work in the same way. The faster they rotate, the more air is being forced down into air with high pressure creating resistance and thus propelling the aircraft upwards.

We highly recommend you check out our full detailed post on drone propellers including the different types, how they work, their different sizes and pitch, their materials, how to choose them, and much more.

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However, rotorcraft use a lot more power in order to stay in the air as they need to support the full weight of the aircraft.

This is why rotorcraft do not usually have as long flight endurance and subsequently range as winged aircraft.

Winged aircraft utilise the surrounding air to aid them during flight allowing them to glide while only needing to worry about horizontal propulsion.

Hybrid vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) UAVs are drones that can take advantage of both the benefits of rotorcraft and winged aircraft. They can glide, take off, and land vertically.

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Unmanned airships utilise gas to generate lift while generating horizontal propulsion with a system often made of propellers, powered by engines or batteries and motors.

How does the method of propulsion affect military UAV range?

There are several propulsion systems that are commonly used in UAVs today. These consist of the use of engines, batteries, fuel cells, motors, solar energy, tethers, or a combination of these powerplants.

Emerging technology such as laser power beaming is also being used to power UAVs.

Each powerplant has its advantages and disadvantages.

Engines have very high energy outputs but require a lot of fuel which adds weight to the aircraft reducing the overall flight time and range.

Tethers enable the UAV to have near infinite endurance but severely limit the drone’s range.

Batteries are very reliable, fairly lightweight, and have good power outputs. However, they do not have the highest capacity limiting both the flight time and range.

Propulsion systems include every component used in the device in order to generate this propulsion such as the UAV’s wheels (if it has any) and propellers, not just its powerplant.

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How does the military UAV’s size and weight affect range?

The size of the aircraft affects its aerodynamics. The bigger its surface area, the more drag the aircraft will have. This will force the UAV to use more power much quicker limiting range and flight endurance.

The weight of the aircraft will also affect the aircraft endurance and range its capable of attaining.

How does the military UAV’s operating altitude affect its range?

The higher a UAV flies, the thinner the air gets. This enables the drone to fly much farther, much faster, for much longer than the average UAV operating at lower altitudes.

This is because thinner air results in less air resistance and less fuel consumption allowing the aircraft to achieve these results.

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What Military UAVs Have The Longest Range?

Here are 6 military UAVs with the longest range:

NameManufacturerDesignTop SpeedFlight TimeRange
Vanilla (VA001)Vanilla UnmannedFixed-wing (Conventional Wing)139km/h (86.4mph)240h (10 days)34,262km (21,289mi)
OrionAurora Flight Sciences (Boeing)Fixed-wing (Conventional Wing)222.2km/h (138.1mph)120h (5 days)24,140km (15,000mi)
RQ-4B Global HawkNorthrop GrummanFixed-wing (Conventional Wing)629km/h (391mph)32h+22,780km (14,154mi)
MantisBAE SystemsFixed-wing (Conventional Wing)560km/h (350mph)30h16,000km (9,942mi)
A160 Hummingbird (YMQ-18A)BoeingSingle Rotor258km/h (160mph)20h+4,170km (2,590mi)
VSR700AirbusSingle Rotor185km/h (115mph)10h+700km (435mi)
6 military UAVs with the longest range

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What Happens If A Military UAV Goes Out Of Range?

These devices are equipped with fail-safe protocols that can be put into effect automatically in the event of a failure to minimise or eliminate damage to the UAV.

If a military UAV goes out of range, it is common for the UAV to automatically circle around in the air and even return to the exact location it was launched from on its own (autonomously).

The UAV may also fly back towards the last point a connection was made to attempt to regain connection with the aircraft while its still flying.


Military UAVs are very advanced vehicles capable of achieving incredible feats. These machines are constantly evolving increasing what we think is the limit in terms of range.

The future is looking very bright as new and more advanced technologies are being developed to improve the already incredible machines that are military unmanned aerial vehicles.

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