There’s nothing more frustrating than spotting a perfect angle for a drone shot, getting it lined up just, almost, right… and the low battery light starts flashing. You just got it up there, and barely had a chance to look around, so how could the battery already be running out? Is it just me, or does the battery always run low way before the manufacturer posted possible flight time? No, it’s not just me. The actual flight time is usually shorter than they claim it couldbe.
With a high-quality consumer drone, you can expect to see a posted flight time of around 30 minutes, while lower quality toy drones will have published flight times of 5-15 minutes. The reality is that actual flight times will usually be a bit less than claimed for a number of reasons.
A lot of factors contribute to the flight time of any given drone on any given flight. Some of these factors are the drone itself, the batteries it uses, the type of motors it has, how much it weighs, etc. Other factors that contribute to actual flight times include external factors such as weather conditions and how you’re using the drone.
Average Flight Times by Type of Drone
The biggest factor influencing the overall flight time of a drone is the type of drone that it is. There are several different ways to think of drone types, but for our purposes we’ll break the standard off-the-shelf options into three basic categories: toy drones, mid-level, and high-end drones.
Advertised Flight Times for Popular Toy Drones
Taking these models as a representative sample, the average advertised flight time for toy drones is about 10 minutes. You will of course find some with longer flight times, and many with shorter. But the frustrating bottom line is that they won’t go for very long without needing a recharge, and it’s usually even shorter than the published max flight time. Like, 2-3 minutes shorter. When it’s only a 10 minute flight to begin with, that doesn’t leave you with much continuous air time.
Advertised Flight Times for Popular Mid-level Drones
If we do the same as above, and take the average of these mid-level drones’ flight times, we can expect an average maximum flight time of around 22 minutes. Keep in mind again, however, that the actual flight time will most likely be 2-5 minutes less than the advertised max.
Advertised Flight Times for High-End Prosumer Drones
Taking the average flight times of these popular higher-end consumer drones, you end up with around 28 minutes of expected flight time. Not bad, considering how much ground you can cover in half an hour. Add on to that a second battery, and you can be in the air for around an hour, almost uninterrupted. And you can do a lot with an hour of in the air time.
Why Drone Flight Times are Less than Advertised
I keep mentioning it, so let’s talk about why the actual flight times are (almost) always less than the advertised maximum flight time. Here are some of the things that impact battery life and actual drone flight times.
Payload Shortens Flight Time
The manufacturer advertised flight times obviously are taking into account only the weight of the drone in its standard configuration. The minute you add on any additional payload, meaning other attachments, the added weight is going to reduce your battery life, meaning a shorter time in the air. For example, if you’re using your Phantom 4 for fishing, and have attached a bait release rig, and are hauling fishing line, you can expect to lose 3-4 minutes of flight time.
Another example of a payload adding weight to your drone would be lights fixed on your drone for night time flights. The added weight of the lights, minimal though they may be, will impact battery life, as will the added drain to the batteries of powering the LEDs. Or it could be an emergency parachute designed to deploy in case of propeller or motor failure and prevent a hard crash. The parachute probably only adds a few ounces, but still that extra weight means loss of flight time.
Perhaps the most common add-on that beginners typically have attached to their drone is propeller guards. This will protect the drone and propellers in case of a crash, but they also add extra weight. Not only that, but they decrease the drone’s overall efficiency by interfering slightly with how well they achieve lift, and both of these things together add up to shorter flight times.
Flight Conditions Can Affect Flight Time
Another major factor affecting your drone’s real life flight time is the weather and air conditions. Many drones are rated to function in near freezing temperatures, but although they will work in cold conditions, the cold will take a toll on the battery life of LiPo batteries, making them discharge more quickly, shortening your expected flight time.
Similarly, extremely hot weather will also shorten your expected flight time, as the hotter air is less dense. This means that your motors will have to work harder to create lift, putting more demand on the batteries.
Windy conditions will also drain your batteries faster, as the drone has to work harder to maintain a steady altitude against the wind. Even slight breezes can make the motors work a little harder, and this is probably the most common culprit in shortened flight times, because outdoor flight conditions are hardly ever breeze-free, especially when you go up more than 15-20 feet.
Usage Scenarios That Shorten Flight Time
How you’re flying the drone will also affect the battery life. You can achieve the longest flight with a simple hover, as it puts the least strain on the motors. As soon as you start moving around, it’s draining the batteries faster, and the faster you fly, the faster they will drain. Flying at maximum speed, you can expect to get half of the published flight time or less.
Many drones have different flight modes, such as sport or beginner, and which mode you’re in will also impact your flight time. Other functions of the drone, such as taking video will result in shorter battery life as well, as the camera is also drawing power from the battery. If you’re flying in sports mode, or shooting a lot of video, you can expect a much shorter flight time than advertised.
Battery Age Impacts Expected Flight Time
How old your battery is, or more precisely, how many recharges it has had, also affects its performance. Over time, the battery simply will not hold as much charge as it did when new, and you will begin to see decreased flight times. Proper care and good charging practices of your batteries will help to extend their useful life, but eventually it will be time to replace your batteries. If you have smart batteries, they will give a reading of battery health, and it’s recommended to replace your batteries when they reach 50% battery health.
With a DJI drone battery, you can get a read of battery health by pressing down on the battery power button for about 10 seconds. The four lights that will indicate by their blinking pattern the health of the battery – fewer blinking lights means decreased battery health and less capacity for holding a charge. Other models have similar functions, or some will provide information on battery health through the controller.
How to Improve Your Drone’s Flight Time
If you already have a drone, that is, you’re not looking to buy a new one, but you want to get the best possible flight performance out of the drone you already have, here are a few things you can do to improve your flight times. Except for in a few things, the name of the game is good battery care.
Reduce the Weight of the Drone
Remove anything that comes off to decrease weight and increase flight time. Propeller guards are a big one. If the camera comes off, you can remove the camera for longer flight time as well, but then you’ve also removed most of the useful function of the drone. If you have add-ons for specific purposes, such as specialized lights, don’t use all of them for each flight, only attach the one you need for any given flight.
Fly in Favorable Weather Conditions
Choose the right weather conditions for flight to extend your drone’s useful life, as well as to get as much time in the air as possible on this flight.
- Don’t fly in rainy or humid conditions. This will take a toll on your motors, decreasing their efficiency and useful life. It can also cause problems for you batteries in the short term and long term.
- Avoid flying in extreme cold. Cold weather will drain your batteries faster. If you don’t have an automatic battery heater, warm them in your pocket before flight, or hover for a minute or two after take off to warm the battery before continuing your flight.
- Avoid flying in extreme heat. Hot weather decreases air density, making it harder for the drone to generate lift. Extremely hot temperatures can make your batteries overheat, or potentially explode. Keep an eye on battery temperatures, and bring the drone down if battery temperatures reach 65-70 degrees Celsius.
- Windy weather will make the drone work harder to remain stable, draining the battery faster. Fly in calm conditions to increase flight time.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Well, not the drone race. If you’re flying at full throttle as when drone racing, you can expect to get very short flight times, like 5-8 minutes of time in the air. If you want your drone to stay up longer, bring it down a couple notches, take it out of sport mode, and avoid sudden movements and direction changes. A slow, steady movement can get you just as good a flight time as a constant hover, especially when you take turns and direction changes smoothly and gently.
Get More Powerful Batteries
With many drone models, you are limited to a standard battery that is solely designed for that drone. But some will be compatible with other battery options, or if you’re doing a DIY type drone configuration, you have the option to go with a more powerful battery. It may cost a bit more to get a battery that can carry a bigger charge, but it will also get you a bit longer flight time.
Have Backup Batteries on Hand
You can double your flight time by having a spare battery on hand, charged up and ready to go. Okay, so yes, you will have to land and swap out the battery halfway through, but you can get right back up there and pick up where you left off. The extra batteries won’t do you any good though if they’re not charged, so be sure they’re on the charger waiting for go time. If you’re not flying where you can have a charger handy, charge them as close to flight time as possible (see below). If you’re flying in cold weather, keep your spares in a warm place till you’re ready to use them (think inner pocket of your coat, near body heat).
Charge Batteries Just Before Flight
Always fly with a fully charged battery. This will get you the best flight time, as well as being in the best interest of your battery’s long term health. Your LiPo batteries will begin to discharge as soon as they’re taken off the charger, so the sooner you get them from the charger to the drone and in the air, the more charge you will have to keep you in flight. This includes keeping your extra batteries on the charger until you’re ready to use them. If you have more than one spare battery, it’s really useful to have a charger that can take more than one battery at a time, as it will take longer to charge one than it will to use up the one before it in a single flight.
Practice Good Battery Maintenance
Taking proper care of your drone battery will give you the best flight times, and extend the useful life of your battery. Here are some basic practices to get the best out of your drone batteries.
- Don’t let your battery run all the way down. LiPo batteries will start to degrade very quickly if they are completely discharged. Most intelligent batteries will prevent you from running them all the way dry, but don’t risk running your battery to the nub, not to mention the risk of crashing your drone should you run out of juice.
- Don’t let your battery freeze. A frozen LiPo battery is dangerous as its chemical makeup is now compromised. It should be disposed of and replaced.
- Cool your battery before recharging. Don’t take it straight off the drone and onto the charger. Let it cool off a bit first.
- Install the battery in the drone before powering it on. Never install a powered on battery. Follow the correct order for powering on: First power on controller, second install battery, third power on battery to turn on drone.
- Do not remove a powered on battery. Power off battery before removing it from the drone. Power off controller last. If you’re changing out a battery to continue flying, remember to power off the battery before removing it, and don’t power on the new one until it’s securely installed.
- Store your battery in a cool, dry place, at partial charge (40-65%) when not in use. Do not keep it long term in the charger. Storing a battery at full charge or at too low of a charge can cause permanent damage to the battery cells, and will result in poor flight times long term, or in an unusable battery that has to be thrown away.
How Long Does it Take to Charge a Drone Battery?
Exactly how long it will take to charge a drone battery will depend on the size of the battery, and the age and condition of the battery. Overall, the average charge time for toy drone batteries is about 70 minutes.
Battery Type and Charge Times for Toy Drones
When you get to the mid-level consumer drone category, flight times have improved a little bit, but the bigger battery usually means an even longer charging time. You can pretty much count on over an hour to fully charge your battery, with an average charge time of 2.5 hours.
Battery Type and Charge Times for Mid-level Drones
By the time you get to the higher end consumer drones, even though the batteries are generally more powerful than with the mid-range drones for longer flight times, they also tend to charge just a bit faster. With the exception of the Typhoon H, all the examples below charge in under 2 hours. Excluding the Typhoon H, the average charge time for high-end consumer drones is about 80 minutes.
Battery Type and Charge Times for High-End Consumer Drones
Don’t forget that the drone is not the only thing with a rechargeable battery. Before you can get up and flying again, you will most likely need to recharge the controller as well. Toy drone controllers may have AA batteries in the controller, and some drones are controlled strictly with a smartphone. But if you have a controller with a rechargeable battery, figure that into your charge time. They typically will not run out of juice as fast as the drone, but may take even longer to fully charge.
Drones With Really Long Flight Times
So far in this article I’ve stayed in the lines of the average consumer drones. With your standard consumer drone, the best flight time you can reasonably expect is somewhere in the range of 30 minutes. But when you get into the realm of commercial drones, there are actually quite a few outliers that take long flights to completely new levels. Some do this by using bigger, more powerful batteries, and some by using alternate power sources such as hybrid motors, solar power, or even being tethered to stay in flight indefinitely.
Let’s look at some of these outliers.
Getting past the typical consumer drone, commercial drones that come with a bigger price tag can also come with extended flying times. Consider the DJI Matrice 200 series of drones that come with powerful batteries that can offer up to 38 minutes of flight time. Or the DJI Matrice 300 drones that can get a whopping 55 minutes of time in the air. When longer time in the air is crucial, such as for public safety operations, the bigger drone with a higher cost is definitely worth it.
The average consumer tends to forget about fixed-wing drones as they don’t fit the mental image that comes to mind immediately. But fixed-wing drones have much more efficient aerodynamics, and can fly much longer than a standard quadcopter, even when using a similar sized battery.
The Parrot Disco is an example of a hybrid fixed-wing drone with automatic takeoff and landing, which means you don’t have to launch it like you would with a typical fixed wing drone. Priced in the range of a mid- to high-end consumer drone, it gets way better flight times, with an expected flight time of up to 45 minutes.
The Parrot Disco is a hybrid drone in the sense that it is a fixed-wing drone that incorporates a propeller for takeoff and landing assistance. Other hybrid drones such as the Quaternium combine fuel and electric power to keep it in the air. A combustion engine powers a generator to keep the battery charged while in flight. With this power source, the Hybrix2.0 drone has logged a record-breaking flight time of 4 hours and 40 minutes.
US-1 Battery Drone
Uniquely designed with a battery-first approach, the US-1 is basically a flying battery with the battery cells taking up most of the internal space. With so much lithium-ion battery packed in there, this drone is a bit heavier than your typical consumer drone, weighing in at 15.7 pounds. The price tag is a bit heftier than most consumers are ready to pay, at around $7,500. Geared toward commercial users, the extended flight time is worth the extra money, with uninterrupted flight times of around 2 hours. It’s a fast charge battery, too, getting to 75% charge in around 45 minutes.
Diesel Powered Drone
For some seriously long continuous flight, consider the record breaking flight of the Vanilla Aircraft’s VA001 36-foot wingspan (fixed-wing) drone that lasted five days, one hour, and 24 minutes. This diesel powered drone unbelievably had three days worth of fuel left after it touched down.
Solar Powered Drones
Now we’re getting well beyond the range of even your standard commercial drone, and into some seriously high altitude. The Zephyr S by Airbus is a solar powered drone that cruises at an altitude of 70,000 feet, and has a wingspan of 82 feet. It uses solar energy generated from onboard solar cells to power motors driving twin propellers. Its longest recorded flight is 25 days, 23 hours, and 57 minutes.
Currently in development by British companies BAE Systems and Prismatic, is the PHASA-35. With an even bigger wingspan of 114 feet, providing more square footage for photovoltaic cells, the goal for the PHASA-35 is to be able to stay continuously aloft for over a year.
If you want a drone that can stay in the air indefinitely, you can tether it. This essentially means that it stays plugged in, and you are no longer limited by how long it can fly, but instead by how far it can go, being limited by the length of your tether. This type of long term aerial perspective is useful for surveillance or security purposes where it’s not practical to install a tower.
One tethered drone, the DroneCatcher, has the job of netting and bringing down malicious drones. If a problem needing interference is spotted, the DroneCatcher can untether and fly with battery power to chase down the enemy drone, and then return to its station and power supply.