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Can I Fly A Drone at Night? What You Need to Know

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Recreational pilots can legally operate their drones at night. Flying at night for commercial reasons has different rules however.

Flying a drone at night sounds like a lot of fun. In fact, drone pilots have been doing it for years, which is the reason why the Part 107 restrictions on drone flight at night were among some of the most controversial. As a response to the feedback, the FAA has proposed a few changes to the rules which should relax the restriction on night-time flight.

What do these rules say, specifically? How do these rules affect recreational drone pilots? What the changes being proposed by the FAA, and when will these take effect?

What do the Part 107 rules say?

To start the discussion, let’s look at the exact language of the Part 107 rules pertaining to flying drones at night (specifically, Section 107.29, Daylight operation) :

“You can fly during daylight or in twilight (30 minutes before the official sunrise or 30 minutes after official sunset, local time) with appropriate anti-collision lighting.”

The rule states that drone flight is only allowed during daytime or during twilight, given the appropriate lighting equipment on your drone. This also means that all types of commercial drone operations will be prohibited during night-time.

Why is this rule problematic?

Since the release of Part 107, the restriction against flight outside of daylight has proven to be one of the most problematic for commercial drone pilots. After all, there are a good number of drone flight jobs that can be done at night, such as weddings, parties, concerts, or sports events.

The night-time also offers unique opportunities when it comes to aerial photography. If you’ve ever wanted to take a drone shot of the city skyline at night or a long-exposure shot of vehicles running down the highway, then you probably understand the frustration of drone pilots when they found that they can no longer fly their drone at night as easily as they used to.

In any case, it is the loss of flexibility in taking drone jobs that commercial drone pilots have lamented about when it comes to Section 107.29. There is, however, a work-around for the rule, as we shall see later on.

What does this mean for recreational drone pilots?

Absolutely nothing. Just as in the time before the Part 107 rules were made, recreational drone pilots are still free to fly their drones at night without violating any laws. This is one of the more controversial aspects of the rule against drone flight at night – after all, commercial drone pilots are presumably better equipped to handle any sort of flight conditions, given that they passed a standard knowledge test given by the FAA. There’s also the irony that a commercial drone pilot may fly a drone at night – given that the flight they are doing isn’t going to generate any profit or help any business.

The FAA does give a couple of very important recommendations for recreational drone pilots who choose to fly at night. Having a set of anti-collision lights on your drone is practical for the safety of your drone and the people around you. It’s also best to avoid flying directly over people or moving vehicles, as there’s a higher chance of crashing into an obstacle when flying at night. The usual requirement to always give way to manned aircraft, of course, applies to drone flight at all times.

Can I apply for a waiver for night-time flight?

Fortunately for commercial drone pilots, flying a paid drone job at night isn’t impossible. Through the FAA DroneZone website, Part 107-licensed drone pilots may apply for waivers for particular drone flight restrictions. Night-time flight is among one of the restrictions for which a waiver can be granted, given the right conditions.

We’ll go ahead and warn you now: applying for a Part 107 waiver can be a long and tedious process that requires a lot of paperwork. On the online waiver application, you will need to provide a very detailed description of your operations, when and where you are going to fly your drone, the potential risks you are anticipating, and any mitigating measures that you plan to put in place.

If you want to improve the chances of your waiver applicating getting approved, your best bet would be to provide as much detail as possible. It would be prudent not just to state the coordinates of your planned fight activity, but also to include a detailed map with boundaries that define exactly where you plan to fly.

Since you are proposing drone flight at night, it is absolutely essential that you outfit your drone with the appropriate anti-collision lights. After-market strobe lights are often better than the stock lights that come with most drones since they are brighter. You’ll also have to give them thought to what type of adhesive you’re going to use with the lights – they will have to made of sturdy stuff and should be able to withstand the usual outdoor conditions.

You might also consider investing in a good GPS tracker device to serve as a backup tracking tool in case your drone crashes. Looking for a downed drone in the darkness of the night would be nearly impossible if you had to rely on just your eyes.

After filing a waiver request, you will have to wait up to 90 days for the FAA to review your application. During this period, the FAA could get in touch with you if they need clarifications about the details of your request, so it’s best to keep your communication lines open. The long waiting time for waiver approval means that commercial drone pilots have to plan way ahead if they are going to accept drone jobs that require flight at night.

Does the FAA approve waiver requests for night flight?

Some good news: yes, the FAA has approved a huge number of waivers requesting for drone flight at night. In fact, more than 90% – or almost 2,000 – of the waivers approved by the FAA have been for night flight. With this information, we can tell that the FAA is already aware of how limiting this particular restriction is to commercial drone flight activity. They have even taken steps to address this problem, which brings us to some changes that the FAA has proposed.

What are the relevant changes that have been proposed by the FAA?

The mandate of the FAA isn’t to simply control and regulate drone flight activity to maintain the safety of national airspace – they also need to keep the environment-friendly enough to promote the growth of the commercial drone industry. It may feel like a slow and painful process for drone pilots, but the FAA has shown that they are willing to listen to stakeholders in the drone community and industry.

In January 2019, the FAA submitted a notice for proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for proposed changes to the Part 107 rules. Among these proposals included changes that were perceived to “relax” the restrictions on drone flight at night.

According to the NPRM document, the FAA is proposing drone flight at night-time to be allowed without the waiver, given a few conditions. Among these conditions is that the drone must be equipped with anti-collision lighting that is visible up to a distance of three statute miles.

The FAA is also considering placing a higher focus on “night physiology and night illusions” on the knowledge test that drone pilots have to pass before they are granted the appropriate Part 107 license. This updated knowledge test seeks to affirm that licensed drone pilots know what it takes to fly at night and could be one of the most significant changes to the process of Part 107 certification since it was first implemented.

Speaking of changes to the certification process, the same NPRM also describes the FAA’s proposal for replacing the current knowledge test with a knowledge training course that commercial drone pilots need to complete. Naturally, this new training course will include modules on drone flight at night to remain consistent with the FAA’s more relaxed stance on the activity.

When will the changes take place?

The NPRM on night flight (among other proposed rule changes) entered into the Federal Register in February 2019, after which the public had 60 days to submit their comments. The 60-day period has long passed, so the FAA should be in the process of reviewing the comments and coming up with revisions before the final rule could be released.

Since then, there have been no concrete updates on the status of the NPRM. The FAA recently released another NPRM for the Remote ID, which also seeks to allow drone pilots to fly in previously restricted conditions by enforcing a system of identification and accountability. Is the FAA going to combine the results of the two NPRMs to come up with more comprehensive changes to the Part 107 rules? That sounds like a reasonable assumption, but it also means that we won’t be seeing any final changes until later in the year, at the earliest. As with most matters relating to Part 107, only the FAA knows for sure.

Final thoughts

Drone flight at night has been one of the most sought-after waivers among commercial drone pilots since the Part 107 rules were implemented, which shows how important it is to the greater commercial drone industry. Thankfully, the FAA seems to recognize this fact and has made steps to make night-time flight much easier for commercial drone pilots. Right now, however, you will still have to apply for a waiver if you want to fly your drone at night.

Rules on drone flight are still going through a lot of changes, and it remains important for drone pilots – both professional and recreational – to keep themselves informed about these changes.

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