On YouTube we can find different videos where people are testing their drones to go as high as possible. This led me to question, how high can commercial drones fly? When we buy a drone, the first thing we look at is how long the batteries can last, how fast a drone can go, what range it has, and the quality of the camera. But what people often forget to take into account when purchasing a drone is a how high that drone can fly. Therefore, is there at least some drone on the market that can reach space?
So Can Drone Reach Space? Short answer is NO! Drones cannot reach Space for few reasons. One of the main reason is the Earth’s atmosphere, where the air is much thinner at high altitudes. Drones are powered by propellers that use air density and push that same air down to keep the drone at that height.
What is the Highest Altitude a Drone Can Fly?
Drones, like airplanes, have the problem of flying at very high altitudes because of the thinner air up in the atmosphere. Because of this, rotors have less efficiency and more power is required to keep the drone at that height. Also one of the factors is the temperature which is getting lower the further we go, which is the problem for lithium-ion batteries which do not tolerate very low temperatures.
As for commercial drones, the highest elevation ever recorded and holding the record is 11,000 ft (3.35 km). That height was achieved with the DJI Phantom 2 drone. The time it took for the drone to reach that height was three and a half minutes. However, today’s drones have a security system that limits these heights, and the only way to get around this is to disable the software restrictions that have been set. Most drones such as DJI have restrictions, and are set to fly 1.5 km above sea level, while the legal limits are much smaller than that and are 500 feets (150 meters).
Can a Drone Work in Space?
The short answer is YES! For many years, NASA has been working to improve its technology, which is based on exploration of other planets, and they already have available drone technology that is used for such missions. But the biggest problem is that drones on Earth can’t be used the same way they do in space, because they don’t have the ability to push air, which creates a thrust, which is also the 3rd Newton’s Law. But if we take as an example a moon that has a very low gravity and a very low air density, it will cause a lot of problems to create thrust, keeping that drone stable in the air.
But when it comes to the universe itself, that is, the space between the planets, there is no air at all so that the thrust required to keep the drone on some desired path would not exist. As an example, we could see Elon Musk and his experiment which he did with his Tesla RoadSter which he launched into space, and that model moved along the path he gave him, and after that it no longer had any effect on changing direction. If you want to know more, read my article: Can Drones Work in Space.
NASA is Exploring Space Using Drones
For the purpose of exploring new planets, NASA has launched a project where it would send its drones and robots into space for the exploration of other planets using new technology. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is working on various solutions to explore other planets, because there are places where NASA rovers have been out of reach for many years and the drones remain only solution for now. These drones are quite similar to the classic quadcopter from Earth, but their mode cannot be applied in space. The reason is that there is no air in space, and classic quadcopers need air to use a propulsion system to keep them airborne. NASA therefore uses a jet system instead of a propeller to navigate and direct these drones in the desired direction.
What they are also trying to achieve is that this drone flies autonomously, that is, no one needs to navigate it. NASA’s prototype drone is approximately 5 feet wide and made of special materials using a 3D printer. As we said, the main goal of these drones would be to access inaccessible places such as the interiors of some volcanoes that the planets might otherwise have. NASA is therefore still working on figuring out how to make the most efficient drone that will have these many capabilities for the purpose of such scientific research.
Drones on a Mission to Explore The Moon
Drones have proven to be extremely capable of completing many tasks that have been set for them so far. This is why the need to use drones for the purpose of space missions has arisen, because there are still many places that have not been explored, both in space and on various planets. NASA has so far used different types of rovers that explored the surfaces and interiors of planets, but these rovers had limited access and encountered various obstacles such as steep mountains, interiors, voids, and the like. What drones could contribute to is to overcome these obstacles and thus offer new research opportunities. Therefore, drones can bypass all these obstacles and offer a completely different view.
Drones have explored almost every corner of the earth so far, which is because they have the ability to navigate whatever conditions come their way. But what drones can do on earth is completely different because of the atmosphere that exists on earth, and so they use air displacement whereby air moves and maintains that drone in the air. But this method can also work on Mars in addition to the Earth, because this planet also has an atmosphere. If there is no atmosphere, no support for the air mass could be made unless there was some kind of rocket propulsion. Rocket propulsion is not the best solution because it discharges very quickly and is of short duration.
Is it Possible For Drone to Reach the Mars?
The only ones we can say to know with certainty the answer to this question are are NASA engineers. Drones on the Earth have been in use for many years and are based on the principle of electricity used to power the engines, and therefore the rotors are keeping that drone in the air. However, since the gravity on Mars is much smaller than that on Earth, and is 3.7 m/s2, then they should be pretty easy to perform – but it’s not! We have already said that drones use their rotors to create a thrust of air directed downwards and thus resist gravity, but the bad news is that the atmosphere on Mars is much denser than that found on earth (about 60 times).
This means that the drone needs to provide much more thrust with its rotors than it is on the ground so it can fly on Mars. One possible solution to this could be to increase the rotor radius, rotor count, or simply increase the rotation speed. But this solution also poses new problems because as Mars is much farther from the Sun than Earth, less solar power is available, and electricity is required to keep that drone in the air.
The Future of Drones in Space
We are already well aware that drones have conquered the Earth and their next destination is the solar system. NASA has a plan to launch a drone in the space and that drone will travel to other planets for the next 6 years. The main mission for that drone (Dragonfly) is to come to Saturn’s moon, Titan. Titan has a very low gravity and has a dense atmosphere. Dragonfly will measure various parameters on Titan, such as the composition of Titan materials, temperature, air density, etc. at the different locations.
Dragonfly is scheduled to launch in 2026 and head to Saturn’s moon Titan, and should arrive at its default location around 2034. He will spend a couple of years circling the planet for the purpose of collecting various data that will be analyzed later. The astonishing facts about Titan are that the air is up to 400 times thicker than Mars and is mostly nitrogen. This will definitely be a challenging mission, as it will fly in alien conditions.
What we can see is that the drone world is expanding at incredible speed. They’ve explored almost every corner of the Earth, and now it’s time for them to take over the universe. NASA is working on specially designed drones that will be capable of exploring both the universe and planets and collect a variety of data. As for commercial drones, they do not have the ability to reach space, due to the thinner density of air, as we go higher in the atmosphere. This is one of the main reasons why commercial drones that are designed like that will not be able to reach space ever.