Modern military drones have become so advanced that they can mirror the capabilities of advanced manned aircraft.
One such capability is the maximum altitude these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can fly at.
Here are the altitudes military drones fly at:
- Very small military UAV fly at less than 1,067m above ground level [AGL] (<3,500ft AGL) altitudes and weigh up to 25kg (55lbs)
- Small military UAV fly at less than 5486.4m mean sea level [MSL] (<18,000ft MSL) altitudes and weigh less than 599kg (<1,320lbs)
- Medium military UAV fly at less than 5486.4m MSL (<18,000ft MSL) altitudes and weigh more than 599.2kg (>1,321lbs)
- Large military UAV fly at more than 5486.4m MSL (>18,000ft MSL) altitudes and weigh more than 599.2kg (>1,321lbs)
Today we’re going to dive into the types of military UAV according to altitude, size, range, design, and function.
We’re also going to explain the factors that impact the maximum altitude a drone can fly, some examples of military UAVs with their altitudes, whether drones are allowed to fly over the U.S., and whether you can see these UAVs in the sky.
This article will only include military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).
- What Types Of Military Drones Are There?
- What Factors Impact The Maximum Altitude A Drone Can Fly?
- What Are Some Examples Of Military UAV? (+Altitudes)
- Do Military Drones Fly Over The US?
- Can You See Military Drones In The Sky?
What Types Of Military Drones Are There?
Now that you’ve learned the average altitudes military drones fly at, it’s important to briefly look into the different types of military drones according to various features and capabilities.
You’ve probably heard these two terms before being used to describe a combat UAV:
- Medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) – up to 9,000m (29,528ft)
- High-altitude long-endurance (HALE) – over 9,000m (29,528ft)
These are just two ways you can classifying combat UAVs.
There are many other ways to categorize UAVs such as categorizing by:
- Size (including weight)
Check out our full post to learn more on the different types of drones including the types according to design, payload, range, power source, and use cases including some examples of both consumer, commercial and military drones:
Types of military drones according to altitude and size (DoD Group System)
Military drone altitudes vary from several hundred feet to 65,000 ft.
Even though we can separate the different drone sizes into different sections using the DoD’s group system, you can actually classify specific drone sizes into separate categories.
- 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.
Micro drones (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).
We have a full post on drone sizing where we dive into the various sizes consumer, commercial, and military drones come in, whether the size of a drone matters, how to measure the frame size of a drone, and much more:
Previously, military drones were separated into systems called “Tiers” or “Classes”.
The U.S. Department of Defense has created an improved system to classify unmanned aerial systems (UAS) which includes the aircraft’s weight, nominal altitude, and speed.
Here is the DoD group UAS classification system:
|Group||Maximum Weight (Kg/lbs)||Nominal Flight Altitude (m/ft)||Speed (kph/mph)|
|1||0-9.1kg (0-20lbs)||Less than 366m AGL (<1,200ft AGL)||Up to 185.2km/h (115.1mph)|
|2||9.5-25kg (21-55lbs)||Less than 1,067m AGL (<3,500ft AGL)||Less than 463km/h (<288mph)|
|3||Less than 599kg (<1,320lbs)||Less than 5486.4m MSL (<18,000ft MSL)||Less than 463km/h (<288mph)|
|4||More than 599.2kg (>1,321lbs)||Less than 5486.4m MSL (<18,000ft MSL)||Any speed|
|5||More than 599.2kg (>1,321lbs)||More than 5486.4m MSL (>18,000ft MSL)||Any speed|
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.
Check out our full post that explains what the differences are between drones, UAVs, and UAS where we also dive into many of the various acronyms used to describe every type of drone:
Types of military drones according to range
Military UAVs can also be categorized based on the range they can achieve.
Here are the types of military drones 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
If you’d like to learn all about consumer drones and how they differ from these military drones, we have a full post on this topic below:
Types of military drones according to design
There are currently 4 types of drones according to design:
- Fixed-wing design
- Multi-rotor design
- Single rotor design
- Hybrid VTOL design
UAVs with a fixed-wing design resemble traditional manned commercial aircraft as they have a set of wings. This is the most common design used by military drones.
UAVs with a 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 with a single rotor design resemble helicopters as they only have a single main rotor with a small tail rotor.
UAVs with a hybrid VTOL design are drones that have combined both the fixed-wing and rotary-blade designs (both single and multi-rotor) into one aircraft.
Check out our detailed post where we dive into how VTOL drones work, the types of VTOL drones according to flight modes, designs, and propulsion methods, their costs, how much they weigh, their payload capacities, use cases, examples, and more:
Types of military drones according to function
Military combat UAVs can be used for various applications.
Here are 6 types of military drones according to function:
- Intelligence drones
- Surveillance drones
- Reconnaissance drones
- Target aquisition drones
- Decoy drones
- Research and development drones
Check out our full post that dives into several applications that drones have today:
What Factors Impact The Maximum Altitude A Drone Can Fly?
Here are 4 factors that impact how high military drones can fly:
- The propulsion method used
- The size and weight of the aircraft
- The weather conditions during flight
- The UAVs maximum flight time
Propulsion method refers to the device the UAV uses to generate thrust. Drones with inefficient and ineffective power sources cannot reach high altitudes as they will most likely run out of power before they can.
Check out our full post where we dive into several power sources currently used in drones. For each power source, we expand on how they work, the different types, the advantages, disadvantages, and real-world examples of drones that use it.
Related Post: How Are Drones Powered? 6 Drone Energy Sources Explained
Size and weight can have a big impact on a UAVs flight time.
A drone with a small size can affect the level of technology inside the drone.
This can directly impact things such as the drone’s range as the device that allows it to receive data (receiver) will not be as powerful.
This can reduce the amount of data that is being communicated via the ground station (transmitter) and the distance this data can travel.
A heavy drone can greatly reduce the UAVs flight time which limits the maximum height it can achieve as it will need to burn through more power to achieve its goal.
Weather conditions is another serious factor to take into consideration. An excess of wind will cause the drones to have to provide more power overall to achieve the same end goal.
This causes the drone to burn through a lot more fuel a lot quicker thus reducing the flight time and therefore limiting the maximum altitude the drone can achieve.
A mission can also be postponed if there is severe rain or snowfall.
Maximum flight time is the final and most obvious reason that we’ve already mentioned. If the drone has a short flight time, it won’t be able to fly as high as one that has a longer flight time.
Take note that for most missions, a drone will need to use the same amount of power to go to its destination as it will need to get back to its take-off point.
We recommend checking out our full post on how long drone batteries last where we dive into average flight times for both consumer and commercial drones, battery life expectancies, why drones have short flight times, how to increase both, and more:
To conclude this section, it’s important to understand that at the end of the day, every drone is built for specific purposes.
If a drone is not built to fly at high altitudes, then it will most likely not be capable of doing so or at least will have a lot of trouble attempting to.
What Are Some Examples Of Military UAV? (+Altitudes)
Here are 11 examples of military UAV and their altitudes:
|Name||Manufacturer||Design||Max Flight Time||Max Altitude||Max Weight||Function|
|MQ-9A Reaper||General Atomics||Fixed-wing||14h||15,420m (50,000ft)||4,760kg (10,494lbs)||Multi-role (ISTAR)|
|MQ-8B Fire Scout||Northrop Grumman||Single rotor helicopter||8h||6,100m (20,000ft)||1428.8kg (3150lbs)||Multi-role (ISTAR)|
|RQ-3 DarkStar||Lockheed Martin/Boeing||Fixed-wing||?||13,500m (45,000ft)||3,860kg (8,500lbs)||Reconnaissance|
|Camcopter S-100||Schiebel||Single rotor helicopter||6-10h||5,500m (18,000ft)||200kg (440lbs)||ISR|
|Stalker||Lockheed Martin+PowerLight Technologies||Hybrid VTOL||8h+ (Propane)||3,658m (12,000ft)||21.8kg (48lbs)||ISTAR|
|Black Hornet 3||FLIR||Single rotor helicopter||25min||?||Less than 33g (<1.16oz)||ISR|
|Indago 3||Lockheed Martin||Quadcopter||45min||5,486m (18,000ft)||2.2kg (4.85lbs)||ISR|
|Vanilla (001)||Vanilla Unmanned||Fixed-wing||240h (10days)||4,572m (15,000ft)||215.5kg (475lbs)||Surveillance/ Inspections|
|Silent Falcon||Silent Falcon UAS Technologies+Bye Aerospace||Fixed-wing||12h||6,096m (20,000ft)||11.5kg (25.4lbs)||ISR|
|ScanEagle||Insitu (Boeing)||Fixed-wing||24h+||5,950m (19,500ft)||22kg (48.5lbs)||Reconnaissance/|
|RQ-4B Global Hawk||Northrop Grumman||Fixed-wing||32h+||18,000m (60,000ft)||14,628kg (32,250lbs)||Reconnaissance/|
ISR: Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
ISTAR: Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance
If you’d like to discover more about who the best drone companies are in the world for the consumer, commercial and military drone markets and some fun facts about them, we have a full post on this topic below:
Do Military Drones Fly Over The US?
Currently, the only military drone that has been granted permission to fly over the United States is the General Atomics SkyGuardian. This aircraft is to be used for surveillance and inspections.
This aircraft is a variant of the MQ-9 Reaper that is not weaponized.
Can You See Military Drones In The Sky?
Once a relatively small drone surpasses around 1,000 meters, it becomes very difficult to spot it with the naked eye. The altitude that it stays visible to the naked eye will vary on the size of the aircraft (length, width, and height), and the time of day you’re trying to spot it (day/night).
An exception would be if sunlight reflected off of the UAV which can allow you to spot it.
These objects are also difficult to spot past these altitudes as the primary types of aircraft flying at such altitudes are going to have fixed-wing or hybrids designs. These designs are fixed with minimal moving parts making them even harder to spot.
This means that if we refer to the DoD’s group system, then it would become very difficult to spot a group 3 drone and above as they fly at 1,067m AGL (3,500ft AGL) and up.
Check out our short post on how you can spot a drone at night where we go into some methods you can use to spot one and we explain why you’d want to look for one in the first place:
Military drones are constantly evolving which constantly increases the heights they will operate at.
This is essential during stealth operations as they must be capable of gathering as much data as possible without being spotted.
This is why some of these aircraft are made to fly at such high altitudes, and why these attitudes can and probably will continue to increase in the coming future.