If you own a drone or have seen one flying, you might have noticed a bunch of different solid and flashing LED lights on its arms. You might think they are just for ornamental purposes but they do have a functional purpose as well.
Drones have three different types of lights:
- Navigation lights: Usually solid red in color on the camera end and tell you the drone’s heading.
- Flight Status lights: Blink in yellow, red & green at different speeds to indicate the different status of drones including errors and warnings.
- Anti-collision lights: Strong white strobing light to signal other aircraft and avoid a collision.
These lights slightly vary from manufacturer to manufacturer but if you are familiar with one set of lights and their meaning, you can work out any new drone you fly. Drones with red and green lights are pretty common.
Let’s explore the functioning of each set of these lights and see what purpose they serve, how to read them, and how the FAA regulates these lights during nighttime flying.
Why do drones have lights?
There are two basic functions of lights on any drone:
- Make the drone more visible to the pilot and other people.
- Show the status of internal components (mode, sensors, errors, etc.) at a glance.
Let’s see the different types of drone lights as we briefly mentioned in the introduction of this article.
Navigation lights, as the name indicate, are used to see the drone heading in the sky.
They are normally solid RED lights on the ‘head’ of the drone where the camera is usually mounted. During the flight, they remain RED without blinking and give the pilot a visual indication of where the drone is heading. These drone lights at night help the pilots.
On some drones, the navigation lights are also partly used to indicate different states of the drone prior to flying (see the below table for Mavic Mini 2 front LED function) But once the drone is airborne, its main function is to tell the drone heading and help with navigation. [Read: How to spot a drone at night?]
Flight status lights
The flight status lights are usually mounted on the rare end (either on arms or on the body). Their main function is to show the status of the drone via different color combinations and blinking patterns.
Although the exact meanings of the color and blinking patterns slightly differ from manufacture to manufacture or even model to model. But after reading ALOT of manuals, I can see a clear pattern across the board.
- Yellow: Often used to indicate a warning or non-critical error like GPS lost, Remote controller disconnected, etc.
- Red: Often used to indicate serious errors or warnings like low battery or IMU error.
- Green: Often used to indicate “success” like GPS connected or Remote controller connected.
As a rule of thumb;
- Green = Good
- Yellow = Warning
- Red = Bad
Apart from these three colors, some drones also use White, Purple, Blue and other colors to indicate different flight modes or statuses. To get a clear picture of your specific drone, you will have to look at your specific drone’s user manual.
Every drone comes with a user manual and each has a section on Flight Status Indicators (LEDs). For example, the below picture shows a snapshot from the Autel EVO II manual. You can find similar tables in every manual.
Drone Anti Collision Lights
If you are flying at night, your drone needs to be visible to you and to any manned aircraft pilot flying above you.
To make this possible, anti-collision lights are used. As their name indicates, their primary function is to avoid any chance of collision with manned aircraft.
Anti-collision lights are bright LED lights mainly white in color so that they can be seen from afar. Compared to the flight status and navigational LED lights, the anti-collision strobe lights are very bright.
New FAA requirement for Anti-collision lights
In April 2021, a new FAA regulation went into effect that mandates a few new features on drones including drone remote ID and the use of white anti-collision strobe lights on all drones – both commercial and recreational. The light should be visible from a minimum of 3 miles. [Read: Can you fly a drone at night]
Since this is a relatively new law, most drones currently available in the market do not have built-in strobe lights (except for a few enterprise drones like Mavic 2 Enterprise dual). To be compliant during nighttime, you will have to buy third party strobe lights and put them on your drone.
Best anti-collision lights for drones
There are a few good options in the market that are compliant with the FAA regulation of 3-miles visibility. Here are a few I would recommend:
LumeCube Strobe: Probably the most famous one among drone enthusiasts. It is 11g, has a rechargeable battery that can last 6 hours and sits securely on your drone via velcro tape.
TopSun Cree: This one is just 5g in weight, has only strobe mode and can run for 3 hours on a single charge. It has no cover so you might not be useful during rainy weather.
Ulanzi DR-02: This one comes in an enclosed plastic container with strobe and flash modes and is just 6g. Runs for 8 hours on a single charge.
FireHouse Arc V: This one has 5 LEDs, have 5 distinct modes and can run for 4.5 hours on a single charge. Weights around 12g.
To recap our discussion, there are three types of light you will find on any drone: flight status lights, anti-collision lights and navigational or directional LED’s.
These different functions help you determine where your drone is in relation to other objects as well as how it’s functioning at any given time. If you’re interested in adding some strobe lights onto your device to be more visible during nighttime hours, make sure to check out the third-party anti-collision lights I discussed and listed above.