Night Vision for Drones: A Complete Guide


There are a lot of different reasons you might want to have night vision for your drone. Night time drone flights are fun for hobbyists, and essential for many professions. The range of night vision solutions has something for everyone and every use. 

Night vision for drones can refer to three different technologies. Each of these allow a drone’s camera to record pictures or videos in low light or completely dark conditions. The three ways this can be achieved is by using either a low light camera, an infrared (IR) camera with an IR light, or a thermal camera.

Which type of night vision you need for your drone of course depends on the purpose of your night time drone operations. And if your purpose is commercial, make sure you have a waiver for night time flight from the FAA before you take off after dark.

What is Night Vision for Drones?

Night vision for drones is not really a clear term, as it is used to refer to three different technologies. The purpose of all of them is to help your drone record images at night, in the dark, but they achieve that in different ways. The end result is actually quite different in each case, and the best use cases for the different technologies are quite different as well. Let’s look at each one.

Low light camera

Many drones with high quality cameras will have a large lens and a large CMOS chip to allow the camera to make the best possible use of any available light to create an image. When these images are recorded in RAW, it’s usually pretty straightforward to use post-processing methods to make a decent photo or video out of something recorded in quite low light conditions. 

Making adjustments to the camera settings, including ISO and shutter speed, can help the camera sensor to make the best use of any available light in the natural setting. With a decent 4K camera on your drone, you can count on good night time photography and videos in most mid- to low-light conditions without any special equipment.

Infrared (IR) Camera

An infrared camera picks up infrared light which is invisible to the human eye as it has a longer wavelength than visible light. An infrared camera generally has an infrared LED near the camera which emits infrared light for the camera to pick up. Images captured with an infrared camera are usually rendered in grayscale. 

Your typical consumer level drone probably doesn’t come with a built in infrared camera for a true night vision experience. However, there are a few drones available on the market that do have infrared cameras. Look for a drone advertised as having a night vision or infrared camera.

Thermal Camera

A thermal camera is in another class altogether, as it doesn’t require any light source at all, visible or infrared. Instead a thermal camera relies on the thermal emissivity (or heat energy) of various types of materials and objects to form an image. Thermal cameras on drones have a wide scope of applications, the majority of which are commercial in nature.

There are a number of drones in the prosumer level that come with dual thermal and visible cameras, or you could also look for a drone with an interchangeable payload system that would allow you to attach a dedicated thermal camera. 

Do Drones Have Night Vision?

Most mid level consumer camera drones have a decent ability to “see” at night in low-light conditions. Basically this means that they can pick up enough ambient light to capture a photograph that can be post-processed to make a readable photo.

The level of detail that a standard camera drone can pick up at night or in low-light conditions, however it going to be quite a bit lower than it would be in the daytime, and you’re often going to have to deal with graininess that often results from not enough light for the sensors to capture the image clearly.

Most drones do not have night vision in the sense of having infrared or thermal cameras. These are a specialty type of camera that either has to be added on, or bought as part of a whole drone setup.

How Far Can Drones See at Night?

For those with privacy concerns, you can rest easy knowing that a typical drone cannot really pick up a great level of detail from very far in low light conditions. They may be able to pick up a light in the distance of up to a mile or more, but anything in shadow or dimly lit will not be seen well at all from a drone at night.

Infrared night vision cameras will also have a fairly limited range of up to maybe 5 yards or so, depending on the strength of the infrared lights used by the camera. In other words, objects would need to be quite close to the drone to be picked up by the emitted light and camera.

The range of vision for thermal cameras is quite a bit better, with the ability to “see” objects several hundred feet away. How well you can read the image will depend on variations in thermal emissivity rather than on any type of light source. 

Can I Add Night Vision to My Drone?

It is definitely possible to add certain types of night vision capabilities to practically any drone. You can do this by getting a specialized light and camera to attach to the frame or gimbal of your drone. 

If you have improved nighttime photography in mind, the best way to do this is actually to use a lighting system such as the LUME CUBE to act like a spotlight on subjects that you want to photograph in low light settings. 

For an add-on infrared setup, you can find small infrared cameras that could be attached to the frame of your drone. These will often not come with batteries of their own, and instead will require a powersource, in which case you can plug it into a port on the drone. 

One thing to bear in mind when adding on extra weight, or when plugging in an accessory, is that your drone will have a shortened battery life and by extension a shortened flight time. 

Thermal

If you need a thermal camera for your drone, the practicality of this depends much more on the type of drone you have. Thermal cameras are fairly sophisticated pieces of equipment, much more so than a simple infrared camera. You’re probably not going to be able to find one that you can just strap on the frame, but will need to be able to attach it to your gimbal. If your gimbal setup is fixed, it may not be possible with the drone you already have (depending on what you have!). 

For example, the DJI Zenmuse XT2, a dual thermal/visual sensor, can be purchased separately from a drone, but is only compatible with a limited number of drone models, namely DJI’s enterprise level Matrice drone series.

It is possible to find a few decent thermal cameras that can actually be retrofitted to drones that are not automatically compatible. However, the big caveat here is that in general they’re going to tend to be relatively heavy, and put a big strain on your battery. The best bet for good thermal imaging from a drone is to get a purpose built setup.

What You Need to Know About Flying a Drone at Night

Before you start using your newly night vision equipped drone, make sure you know what the rules are for flying a drone after dark. 

If you are flying for purely recreational purposes, you actually have a greater degree of flexibility with night time flying. You don’t need a license or a waiver, so long as you are not earning money from your flight (or your photography). The only stipulation is that your drone must have lights that allow you to tell the drone’s direction and orientation.

For those flying at night for commercial purposes, until recently you had to have a waiver from the FAA for night time operations. That is in the process of changing, and you will now (soon!) not need a waiver, but will instead need to learn safety procedures for nighttime operations as part of your knowledge training and testing.

What Are Night Vision Drones Used For?

There are quite a few reasons that drones need to be flown at night, and with that comes the need for night vision. Here are a few of the uses of night vision for drones.

Photography – For the majority of people looking for “night vision” for their drone, the primary use is photography. Perhaps you want to take pictures of the nighttime cityscape, or of weddings or other events happening after sundown. A decent drone with a sensitive sensor will usually be adequate for nighttime photography in most low-light settings. Adding on an external light source can be a big help as well.

Security – A big use for flying drones at night is using them for perimeter surveillance. In this case, a low-light sensor might not cut it, and a solid choice could be a good infrared camera to see images in the dark. Even better is a thermal camera that can get a much better range to pick up images without needing to rely on the relatively short distance that the infrared LEDs would reflect.

Search & Rescue – Finding a missing person in the dark has gotten a whole lot easier with the use of thermal cameras that easily identify the heat signature of a person in the midst of a comparatively cold landscape. When on a drone, the thermal camera can quickly and efficiently cover a lot of ground to locate the missing person, or individual in distress. 

Inspections – No longer limited to daylight hours, many types of construction and industrial inspections can now happen at night, and rely almost exclusively on drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras. The dust of a construction site, or fog on a hillside pose no limitation either, as the thermal emissivity travels through these particulates the way visible light does not. 

This is just scratching the surface of how night vision can be used in conjunction with drones. Especially with thermal imaging, the ability to see objects and individuals without relying on any external light source changes the game in so many industries. 

Elizabeth Ciobanu

Editor-in-Chief. Elizabeth is a full-time (homeschooling!) mom of four, and serial entrepreneur in a variety of enterprises, one of which is producing content for Droneblog. If free time existed, she would love to spend more time on hobbies such as flying a drone.

Recent Posts