Can You Fly a Drone at Night?

Before April 21, 2021 drone pilots were not allowed to fly their drones during nighttime without a special nighttime waiver called “107.29 Daylight Operation waiver”. But things have recently changed for good with the 2021 FAA drone regulations going into effect. So, can you fly a drone at night now?

Starting 21 April 2021, both commercial and recreational drone flyers can fly their drones at night without a waiver but will have to install anti-collision lights on their drones. Commercial drone pilots will also have to go through updated training & testing as part of their 107 Remote Pilot Certification.

Both recreational and commercial pilots have to follow FAA guidelines to be able to fly at night. The commercial drone pilot’s requirements are a bit more stringent than the recreational flyers. Let’s discuss them both in detail.

Nighttime flight requirements under old rules

For recreational flyers

For recreational and hobby flyers, there were no strict rules during the nighttime. Hobbyists were allowed to fly their drones at night but were required to put anti-collision lights on the drone so that they are safe for manned flights in the sky.

Apart from that, the standard FAA rules were applicable during night flights like always keeping a visual line of sight and always remaining under 400 feet from the ground and registering your drone before flying if it is above 250 grams in take-off weight. These regulations are the same as daytime flights so most hobbyists were already complying with these rules.

For commercial drone pilots

The requirements were quite different for commercial drone pilots who flew under Part 107 Remote Pilot licence.

In order to fly during the night, commercial drone flyers were required by the FAA to get a Daytime Operation Waiver. As commercial drone activities increased in sectors like agriculture and construction, these Daytime waivers were increasing as well making it difficult for the FAA to keep up with the paperwork. Also, during this time, no serious incident occurred.

This prompted the FAA to released legislation in January 2019 proposing conditional permission to commercial drone pilots to fly at night without seeking a Daytime Operation waiver. To do this, all commercial pilots had to comply with some rules to ensure the skies remain safe for all.

New Nighttime Flight Regulations (Effective from 21st April 2021)

Under the updated FAA Part 107 regulations, all commercial licensed drone pilots will be allowed to fly at night without applying for any additional waiver. However, they will have to comply with a few new regulations before you see a lot of drones flying at night.

1. Updated Part 107 training & testing

All operators must follow the new FAA’s testing and training requirements in order to be eligible for this rule change.

Part 107 Certificate holders currently holding the certificate must pass the FAAST website‘s new recurrent training. New pilots must pass their first aeronautical knowledge exam at an FAA-designated Airman Testing Facilities, then go through the nighttime flight training module to be able to fly at night.

The additional training module is temporary and will continue until the FAA revises the primary certification exam syllabus to include night operations. The FAA eliminated the requirement for recurring testing and replaced it by a requirement for recurring training. This is a real benefit to pilots who already have their commercial drone licence.

The new rules will apply to all new pilots. This means that night operations training and testing will be part of the Aeronautical Knowledge Test required by anyone applying for a Remote Pilot Certificate.

2. Anti-collision lights on drones

The new law also requires that drones operated at night have anti-collision lighting that can be seen from three miles. This is in contrast to the recreational flyer requirement. There is no maximum distance recreational flyers must be able to see the drone at night. To meet this requirement, we will soon see brighter lights in commercial drones.

If you already have a drone without anti-collision lights, you can buy a separate module and install it on top of your drone. I would recommend Lume Cube Strobe lights.

3. Remote Identification

Another important requirement in the new FAA legislation is remote identification of drones flown for commercial and recreational purposes. This rule applies to both Daytime and Nighttime flights. The good news is, this regulation will come into effect in September 2023. All the manufacturers are required to upgrade their models with the necessary hardware to comply with the new requirements.

Remote Identification rule by FAA
Source: FAA

Why would I need to fly at night?

Flying at night is a great option if you are just looking for fun. To determine which direction your drone is facing, you must rely on the orientation lights. You can’t rely on the on-screen images to show you where you are going. It’s sometimes difficult to see the entire landscape through the camera, especially when there aren’t any ambient lights. Beyond the novelty of night flying, there are many practical and profitable reasons to fly after dark.

Private & Public Security

Nighttime is the best time to monitor and patrol the perimeters of buildings such as power plants, prisons, commercial buildings, or construction sites that have expensive equipment. Drones are highly useful for security patrol and are especially needed after dark.

Photography

Night photography is a standard industry practice, and it is not just limited to shots taken from the land. Aerial photography is often done at night. This includes wedding photography where the reception or celebrations continue well after dark. Consider real estate photography, in which prospective buyers are interested in seeing the skyline of the apartment after dark, possibly in a building still under construction.

Sporting Events

Drones cannot fly over stadiums, and drones can’t operate over large crowds. A drone is required to capture the excitement at many sporting events. Many of these events take place after dark. You can film skiing events or BMX competitions.

Aerial Cinematography

There are many instances in which the movie industry requires night-time aerial filming. Night shots are essential for the big screen as well as commercials and shorts. There is no need to reduce the drama from the aerial perspective to the daytime.

Building and construction Inspections

Roof inspections and other inspections of buildings or infrastructure that are done at night may be more useful in certain cases. Thermal sensors may detect heat leakage more clearly if surfaces are not affected by sunlight’s warmth.

Law Enforcement

Police often have to fly drones at night in order to investigate crime scenes or surveillance. Many criminal activities are conducted under the cover of darkness. Drones are used extensively in search and rescue missions to locate missing people in the dark using thermal cameras. Thermal cameras are also used by firefighters to help them keep safe and monitor fire scenes.

Wildlife Monitoring

Drones can be used to track and locate animals using thermal sensors. Monitoring is most effective at night when animals are active. Night operations are also required to monitor poaching activity using a drone since many poachers tend to be most active at night.

Land Surveying

Larger surveying jobs can take longer than expected. The flexibility to work late into the night and continue the job allows for greater efficiency.

Monitoring Livestock

Drones can be useful in livestock monitoring. This is especially true at night when it might be difficult to see the herd. However, thermal sensors can spot individual animals in darkness.

How to Fly a Drone Safely at Night

Drone flying at night is more dangerous than daytime flights due to the fact that it can be harder to see. However, understanding the risks will help you make safe flights. Anyone who has been through the FAA night waiver process will know the basics of safe night flying. These aspects will no doubt be included in the new regulations’ night flight training requirements.

Avoid aircraft, people and other obstacles

It is important to know the area you will fly in at night. You should know where ground-based obstacles are located and how you will monitor them in the darkness.

Flying above 400 feet or in high-manned air traffic areas is not a good idea. However, you can use an app like B4UFLY to find airspace alerts and other warnings in the area where you plan to fly.

Keep the drone in visual line

It’s important to have good lighting onboard for both daytime and night flights. Good lighting is the best way to ensure your aircraft is visible at all times while flying. A visual observer (VO), or even two, can be helpful. While you may not want to fly where there is an external light source nearby, it’s a good idea to consider the possible confusion.

Make sure your drone is visible in the sky

Bright lights aboard your drone will make it visible to other unmanned and manned aircraft operators. Commercial drone operations at night are subject to the FAA’s requirement that the anti-collision light is visible for three statute miles.

Do not assume your drone’s built-in lights are sufficient. They often aren’t. The Lume Cube is recommended for night-time drone flights. It was specifically designed for drones and night operations. It will not only keep you compliant with FAA regulations but it will also keep your drone safe and other people safe.

Monitor the drones flight parameters

The orientation lights on your drone will help you stay oriented when you fly it in darkness. These lights can be used to indicate which direction your drone is heading. Many drones come pre-installed with them, but you can also install them yourself.

You can use the indicator on-screen to track your drone’s altitude. It is possible to set your altitude ceiling lower than you would normally do in a daytime flight. A plan should be prepared for what to do in case the lights go out or the connection is lost. An RTH (Return To Home) function on most high-end drones is a good feature in such a situation.

Can you fly a drone at night – Summary

With the new FAA regulation going into effect in April 2021, all commercial and hobby flyers can fly their drone at night without any additional authorisation or waiver. However, they will have to comply with the following requirements put in place to protect the airspace for everyone:

  • You should have an anti-colission light installed on top of your drone that is visible from 3 miles.
  • You should go through an additinal nighttime fliying module during your Part 107 pilot exam.
  • You should have a remote identification on your drone that transmit your drone ID at all times (applicable in 2023 and onwards)

Apart from these new regulations, the previous general FAA rules also apply to your flight i-e always keeping the drone in visual line of sight, keeping the drone below 400 ft altitude and avoiding sensitive areas like airports and crowded areas and public places where drones are banned like National Parks.