(Please note that Skyward does not provide legal advice. This article is for informational purposes only. For legal and regulatory advice on drones or drone laws, contact an aviation attorney.)
Until 2021, drone flights at night were generally prohibited in the United States. Under Part 107, the FAA’s regulations governing commercial drone operations, drone pilots were only permitted to fly during daylight hours and civil twilight. The only way to get permission to fly at night was to apply for a Part 107 waiver from the FAA. If you were able to prove that you could mitigate the risks of operating at night, the FAA could grant you permission to operate after sunset.
Ultimately, the FAA approved more than 3,700 Part 107 waivers for night drone ops — by far the most of any type of waiver. Such a large sample size demonstrated that it was indeed possible to safely operate drones at night.
In December 2020, the FAA announced an update to Part 107. Among other things, this update set new standards permitting drone pilots to fly after sunset without a waiver. In addition to following Part 107 rules for daytime flights, nighttime drone pilots must:
- Use appropriate anti-collision lights
- Get certified or take recurrent training after April 6, 2021
Since these updates became effective, drone pilots have been taking advantage and flying missions at night. This can be useful for capturing thermographic images, dramatic photography, infrared site surveillance, and more.
But it’s important to follow the rules and operate safely — especially at night when visibility is limited. Let’s take a look at what’s required to operate drones at night.
What counts as a night flight for drones under Part 107?
In aviation terms, night is, quite simply, the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight. Part 107.29(c) defines “Civil twilight” as the 30 minutes after official sunset and the 30 minutes before official sunrise. (The exception is Alaska, where civil twilight is defined in the Air Almanac.)
In practice, the requirements for night flights and civil twilight flights are essentially the same. (Both require anti-collision lights, although flights during civil twilight don’t have the April 6, 2021 training requirement.) As a best operational practice, Skyward considers any portion of a flight that takes place after sunset and before sunrise to be a night operation.
Use high visibility strobe lights for night flights
Part 107 drone operations at night require the drone to be equipped with appropriate anti-collision lights. These lights must:
- Be visible for at least 3 statute miles
- Flash at a rate frequent enough to prevent collisions with other aircraft
The built-in navigation lights on most drones are NOT sufficient to meet this requirement. Fortunately, many relatively inexpensive add-on strobe lights are available on the market that meet the visibility requirements. Just don’t forget to charge your strobe light along with your drone batteries before you head into the field! (I forgot to do this once, and a dead strobe meant I had to stop flying before the sun finished setting.)
Make sure your certification is current and recent enough for night ops
The FAA updated Part 107 testing materials to include subject matter relevant to drone night operations. Before flying drones at night, the pilot in command is required to prove their knowledge of these requirements.
To fly drones at night, the pilot in command must have received their initial Part 107 remote pilot certification after April 6, 2021. If the pilot’s certification or most recent renewal is older than that, they will need to renew their Part 107 knowledge currency with the FAA’s new training process.
Fortunately, the renewal training process is free, online, and relatively quick. Plus, I found the new information about night flights particularly interesting — especially the “Night Blind Spot” in the center of your vision!
Pro tip: Check airspace and get night LAANC authorizations
Airspace rules still apply at night, just like they do during the day. At night, it’s all the more important to make sure you have permission to fly in the airspace you’ll be operating in, since understanding your position and avoiding other aircraft in flight can be even more difficult than normal.
Skyward’s drone airspace map can help with this. Not only can drone pilots check airspace conditions 24 hours a day, but they can also request LAANC authorizations for rapid access to controlled airspace. With the newest generation of LAANC, drone operators can request airspace authorizations for operations at night as well as during the day. This means pilots no longer need to use the LAANC workaround that was required earlier in 2021; they can just request LAANC for the time window they need.
Looking for more insights on Part 107 drone rules?
Download Skyward’s Guide: Navigating Part 107. It takes a closer look at many areas of Part 107 and how Skyward can help your company get results from your drones while following the rules.