There are many reasons to fly a drone after the sun has set, and not least of all that it’s simply exhilarating. But the question is whether it’s both safe and legal to do so. With different regulations for recreational flyers and commercial drone pilots, there’s some confusion on the question, and especially as some of the regulations are currently in flux.
Drone hobbyists can fly a drone at night with no special requirements except that you must have lights on the drone. As of January 2021, (effective March 2021) Part 107 Pilots do not need to have a nighttime waiver to fly a drone at night, but do need to have nighttime operations training.
There are more risks inherent with night flight, primarily because it’s harder to see your drone and other potential obstacles. But for both hobbyists and professional drone pilots alike, safe operation of a drone is definitely possible to achieve, and can open all kinds of potential benefits.
Who Can Fly at Night and Who Can’t?
Recreational Drone Flyers
Ever since the FAA put out official guidelines for safe drone flight for recreational flyers in 2016, flight after dark has been permitted. No special training or licensing is needed for recreational flyers, either in daylight, at dawn or dusk, or after dark. The only limitations for hobbyists flying their drone at night relate to lighting, and the other FAA guidelines that apply under all conditions.
The most important of these is that the drone must be in visual line of sight to the pilot at all times (or to a visual observer). This can get tricky at night, and the best way to make sure you can see your drone is to have lights on it. These lights should indicate the orientation of the drone to help you stay oriented as you fly it, as well as simply showing you where it is.
Other basic safety rules such as having your drone registered, staying below 400 ft above ground level, giving way to manned aircraft, etc. apply at night just as much as in the daytime. For a more complete list of safety guidelines from the FAA, see our section on the topic in our Beginner’s Guide.
Commercial Drone Pilots
Previously pilots flying a drone under Part 107 had to obtain a waiver from the FAA to operate after dark, but night flights are essential to so many commercial uses of drones that the Part 107 Daylight Operations waiver has been far and away the most commonly applied for waiver, making up nearly 95% of the waiver requests. Since Part 107 and waiver system were implemented, no accidents involving nighttime drone operations have been reported. Kudos to all the drone pilots who have operated with care and caution. No doubt that has played a big role in the current procedure changes.
In January 2019 the FAA announced proposed legislation changes, and we are now in the midst of that change. A waiver will no longer be required for commercial drone pilots to operate after dark. Instead, nighttime operations safety procedures will be included in the required knowledge test to hold a commercial drone pilot’s license.
The New Commercial Drone Night Ops Regulation
The updated FAA Part 107 guidelines for commercially licensed drone pilots include the ability to fly at night, as well as over people, without a waiver. The new rules also require remote identification for drones to be able to be easily identified from the ground, making them easier to track.
The implications for commercial operations will be far-reaching, as many more professional drone pilots will be able to safely, legally and easily fly after dark. For those who already hold a Remote Pilot Certificate, they will need to have updated training and testing before being allowed to operate at night.
For those who are coming in as new pilots under the new rules, the training and testing for night operations will be included in the standard Aeronautical Knowledge Test that is required for anyone applying for a Remote Pilot Certificate. See our article on How to Become a Professional Drone Pilot for more information on getting your commercial pilot’s license.
Also included in the new law is a requirement that any drone operated at night must have anti-collision lights that can be seen for three statute miles. This is different from the requirement for recreational flyers, as there is no specified distance that recreational flyers need to be able to spot the drone at night. We will likely soon be seeing brighter lights built into commercial level drones to meet this requirement.
What began as proposed changes to regulations has now been officially announced as the new law. They don’t take effect immediately however, giving everyone time to catch up. The new rules become effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, meaning that they take effect in March 2021.
That goes for the night time operations and flying over people at least. For the remote identification requirement, the technology is not quite there yet, and drones on the market do not yet have remote id capability. Taking this into account, the FAA is giving drone manufacturers an additional 18 months to produce drones with remote identification, putting that out to September of 2022.
Commercial drone operators don’t need to worry about upgrading their equipment just yet either – they have an additional year after that before they will be required to operate drones equipped with remote id. So if you’re a professional drone pilot wondering whether it’s time to upgrade, you might just want to wait a couple years until drones with remote identification start coming available.
It may be time to start studying up on safe night time operations, however, as you will need to have that knowledge under your hat before you can pass the updated testing requirements. Take a look at our recommended courses for night time flight training.
Why Would I Need to Fly at Night?
If you’re flying just for fun, it’s actually really fun to fly at night – a completely different experience. You need to rely on the orientation lights to know which way your drone is facing, and you can’t really rely much at all on the on-screen images to see where you’re going, as it’s often hard to see much of the landscape through the camera, especially if there aren’t many ambient lights. But beyond the novelty of night flight, there are a ton of practical and lucrative reasons to fly after dark.
Night photography is an industry standard, and this is not limited to land based shots. Aerial photography often needs to happen at night. This could include wedding photography, where the wedding or reception and celebration go on long after dark. Or consider real estate photography, where prospective buyers want to see what the skyline from the apartment will look like after dark, perhaps in a building that is still under construction.
The movie-making industry has lots of instances of needing night time aerial filming. Night shots are basic on the big screen, as well as for commercials, shorts, you name it. No need to limit the drama of the aerial perspective to daytime.
While drones still cannot operate over large crowds (no flying over the stadium!), plenty of sporting events, and many that happen after dark, need a drone to capture the excitement. Think filming skiing events, or BMX competitions.
Nighttime is primetime for surveillance and perimeter patrol of places such as prisons, power plants, commercial buildings or construction sites with expensive equipment on the grounds. Drones do a great job of performing security patrol, and are most needed after dark.
Public Safety & Law Enforcement
The police often need to fly drones at night for surveillance or crime scene investigation, as a lot of nefarious activities take place under cover of darkness. Search and rescue missions rely heavily on drones to help locate missing persons in the dark with thermal cameras. Firefighters use thermal cameras as well, day or night, to monitor fire scenes and help keep the crew safe.
Roof inspections or other types of building and infrastructure inspections that are performed at night can be more informative in some cases. Heat leakage may be more apparent to thermal sensors when surfaces are not influenced by warmth from the sun.
Large surveying jobs may take longer than anticipated to complete, and the flexibility to continue the job into the evening and night allows for greater workflow efficiency.
Wildlife Monitoring & Conservation
For monitoring efforts of nocturnal wildlife populations, drones are very effective at locating and tracking animals with thermal sensors. Monitoring efforts are most effective when the animals are active at night. Monitoring poaching activity with a drone also requires night operations, as many poachers are most active at night.
Drones are useful at livestock monitoring, and this is especially true at night when it may be hard to visually keep tabs on a herd, but thermal sensors can easily spot individual animals in the dark.
How to Safely Fly a Drone at Night
Flying a drone at night carries a bit more risk than daytime flight for the obvious reason that it’s harder to see, but understanding the potential risks goes a long way toward achieving safe flights. For anyone who has gone through the process of obtaining a night waiver from the FAA, the aspects of safe night flight are well laid out. No doubt these will appear in the nightflight training requirements under the new regulations as well.
Maintain visual line of sight
This is required in the daytime as well, but it’s especially important for night time flights. The best way to make sure you keep your aircraft in view at all times during flight is to have good lights onboard. It is also helpful to have a visual observer (VO) to help out, or possibly even two. You may want to plan to fly where there are other external light sources nearby, but bear in mind the confusion these can cause under certain circumstances.
Avoid people, aircraft and other obstacles
It’s really important to be familiar with the area that you will be flying at night. Know where any ground-based obstacles are and plan how you will keep tabs on them in the dark. You shouldn’t be flying above 400 ft or in high manned air traffic areas anyway, but use an app such as B4UFLY to check for airspace alerts or other warnings for the area in which you are planning to fly.
Know your aircraft’s altitude, attitude, and movement
Orientation lights on your drone are extremely helpful to keep you oriented as you fly your drone in the dark. Red and green lights show you which way your drone is headed, and many drones come with these preinstalled, or you can install them on your own. Use the indicators on-screen to keep track of your drone’s altitude, and you may want to pre-set your altitude ceiling to lower than you normally would in a daytime flight. You should also have a plan in place of what to do if the lights fail, or you lose connection with the drone.
Understand and overcome visual illusions
Your eyes can play tricks on you in low light conditions, but if you know what kind of tricks they can play, you’re two steps ahead. Here are some of the types of visual illusions you can expect in nighttime conditions that might affect your night flight.
- Autokinesis – phantom motion. When you stare at an object it may cause it to appear to be in motion when it’s in fact stationary.
- Fascination/Fixation – Attention fixed on one goal or object may cause you to ignore other orientation cues.
- Reversible Perspective Illusion – This is the inability to tell if an object is moving toward you or away from you.
- Size-Distance Illusion – Objects which are dimly lit appear to be farther away, while brightly lit objects appear closer.
- Flicker Vertigo – Flashing lights may cause disorientation or nausea.
Keeping these optical illusions in mind while operating your drone at night can help you to avoid a lot of potential pitfalls and achieve safer flights.
Make your aircraft conspicuous
It’s important for other manned and unmanned aircraft operators to be able to see your drone at night, and the best way to make it conspicuous is with bright lights onboard. The FAA requirement for commercial drone operations at night is a light that can be seen for 3 statute miles.
Don’t assume that the built in lights on your drone are bright enough, because often they aren’t. For night time drone flights, we recommend the Lume Cube, purpose built for drones and night time operations. Not only will it keep you in compliance with FAA regulations, it will also help keep your drone and others safe.
Anti-Collision Lights for Night Operations
For recreational flyers, the FAA requires that the drone have lighting on board if it is operated during morning and evening civil twilight, or at night. For commercial drone operators flying a drone at night, FAA requirements are for anti-collision lights that are visible for 3 statute miles. This is to improve the visibility of the drone to other aircraft in flight. Many drones come with lights built-in, and these may be navigation lights, anti-collision lights, or both. Let’s talk about the different types of lights for a minute.
Drone Navigation Lights:
- Are a steady light, meaning they don’t blink or strobe
- Are usually white, green or red
- Help to indicate the orientation of the drone (is it facing away from you, etc.)
Drone Anti-Collision Lights:
- Are blinking or strobe lights
- Are white or red
- Are typically much brighter than standard navigation lights
While chances are good that your drone comes equipped with navigation lights, it’s also pretty likely that it does not come built in with anti-collision lights that are bright enough to meet the 3 mile requirement. Unless you’re a commercial drone pilot flying under a Part 107 waiver (or soon under the new training requirements, it might not matter.
For the particularly safety conscious, and for commercial drone pilots, it’s a good idea to look around for anti-collision lights that will keep you on the right side of the FAA, and safer during night flights. Most add-on anti-collision lighting is more affordable than you think and doesn’t weigh enough to have a significant impact on your battery life or flight time.