Can you fly drones at night in 2021?

ULTIMATE guide for recreational and commercial pilots
can-you-fly-a-drone-at-night

There are many reasons for which you might want to fly a drone at night, but is it safe and especially legally allowed?

The separation between recreational and commercial pilots can make the answer quite confusing, but things are pretty clear with the recent updates from the FAA.

As a recreational drone flier, you can fly a drone at night without any requirements or permits, but you're obliged to have lights on your drone. As a commercial pilot, as of March 2021, Part 107 pilots don't need a nighttime waiver anymore; but instead, they need night flight operations training.

Now let's see more details regarding both hobby and commercial flights and what the difference between these two is.

Hobby
  • You can fly any drone at night

  • You need navigation lights

  • Follow the standard rules
Commercial
  • Need to have a Strobe Light on the drone

  • Light must be visible at 3 statute miles

  • White or Red color light

  • Need to pass a test or training for night flying

Can hobbyists fly drones at night?

If you're flying your drone just for fun and want to take some photos and videos after sunset, at dawn, at dusk, or at night, do you need a waiver or special permission for that?

Hobbyists can fly drones at night without part 107 certification or any permits needed. However, even as a non-commercial flier, you must have lights on your drone to show its position and keep it in line of sight.

The types of lights required aren't currently regulated, as most drones already come with a pair of 4 Led lights by default.

Besides the lighting, all the other flight rules from daytime flight apply, including:

  • Registering your drone if it's over 0.55lbs (250g).
  • Fly below 400 feet above ground level.
  • Don't fly in controlled airspace.
  • Keep the drone in line of sight.
  • Don't fly over people or moving vehicles (especially in crowded areas).
  • Stay out of airports and emergency response activities.
  • Don't fly under the influence.

Can Commercial Drone Pilots fly at nighttime?

In the past, you needed a proper operational waiver, things changed in 2021, and new FAA drone operation rules went into effect.

Commercial drone pilots can fly at night once they complete the free online nighttime training. If you don't yet have a part 107 certificate, you need to pass the initial test with the included nighttime module.

If you want to fly your drone past sunset commercially, you need to comply with the new FAA's training and testing rules:

If you have a part 107 Certificate already, all you have to do is complete the recurring free online training provided here (that's updated with the new night flight modules).

If you don't yet have a part 107 certificate, then you'll be able to take the standard Aeronautical Knowledge test that includes the new night flying training. If you want to find more about getting the commercial license certificate, check out my article on it.

Do you need anti-collision lights for drones?

As we've seen already, there is a requirement for drone lights to be present on a drone, but are the ones drones come in the package with enough? 

There's an important distinction we must make between hobby and commercial drone lighting during night operations. Do you even need a strobe light as a hobbyist flier?

For recreational drone fliers, the standard navigation LED lights that a drone comes with are enough. However, as a commercial pilot, you are obliged to use an anti-collision light that's visible for a minimum of 3 statute miles.

If you're interested in getting strobe lights, I suggest you check out my article on the best anti-collision lights for drones.

What lights do you need on a drone to fly at night?

There are two types of drone lights the FAA mentions:

  1. Drone Navigation Lights (for recreational uses)
    1. these usually come with the drone itself and area steady(they don't blink)
    2. Usually, drones come with two red LED's in front and two green ones in the back, helping with orientation
  2. Drone Anti-Collision Lights (for commercial drones)
    1. these must be blinking/ strobe lights (not fixed ones)
    2. Are either white or red (not green)
    3. It can be seen at a minimum of 3 statute miles (much brighter than navigation lights)

The standard lights on most drones (like DJI ones) aren't going to be observable that far, so you'll need a powerful strobe light to make the UAV more visible. They are, however, enough for hobby use and orientation in the air.

The strobe light must be mounted on the top or sides of the drone so it can still be seen from the top and the light needs to have a proper flash rate, so the visibility is as high as possible.

I have made a separate article on what are the best strobe lights for drones if you want to check it out. But if you want a quick buy of my top pick, just check the brightest and most well built one (made in usa) - the Firehouse Arc V

Can I fly DJI Mini 2 at night?

Being one of the most popular drones yet one of the smallest, you're wondering if the Mini 2 is adequately equipped to fly at night.

You can fly the DJI Mini 2 at night recreationally since it comes with navigation lights. However, you'll need to mount a strobe light on it if you plan to fly it commercially.

Adding a strobe light on such a small drone can be problematic, but the DJI Mini 2 can properly fly with a lightweight strobe attached to it.

Does a strobe light on the DJI Mini 2 push it over 250 grams?

You bought a drone under 250 grams for skipping the registration, but if you now need to add a strobe light on it, won't that make it over 250 grams? 

Again, you can check out my full article on what are the best strobelights for drones and get every answer you want.

As a quick answer, the best lightweight strobelight that won't push the DJI mini 2 over 250 grams is the Topsun CREE strobelight.

Best Drone settings for flying at night

While the camera settings themselves depend a lot on whether you need to do photography or videography, one tweak can considerably improve your shots.

The front LEDs of any drone can interfere at night and bleed red light into the camera. In addition, the LEDs are usually attached to the front legs, so the light can have the potential to change the footage a bit. Depending on the drone, you can have the option to disable the front LEDs temporarily.

Here are the options for the Mini 2 : 

  1. Go to Settings
  2. General
  3. Hit front LED's auto turn off

They will turn off during recording, but keep in mind that it will make it more difficult for you to orientate without the lights if you fly line of sight.

How to safely fly a drone at nighttime

Flying a drone at night is an entirely different experience than daytime flying as drone cameras can't see as far, and it's also more challenging to detect obstacles like cables, branches, and buildings.

Here are seven tips to safely fly a drone at night:

1.Check the flight path during the day

Surveying the area during the daytime either by yourself or with the drone can help you detect potential cables or small obstacles that can get in your path at night and give you more confidence for a specific flight path.

2.Keep the drone in line of sight

while this is mandatory by law, it's also much more essential to keep track of at night for cases where you're losing signal or have a hard time seeing obstacles on your drone camera.

3.Keep track of the way the drone is facing 

Most drones have two red lights in front and two green ones in the back; check the setup on yours, so you know how to pilot it back to safety manually in case you lost the signal.

4.Get a strobe light

(even though you're flying recreationally)

5.Keep track of the altitude, GPS position, and distance from you 

You can usually find this essential data in your drone app or controller. Sometimes it even shows in the controller (if it has a screen) even if you lost the visual signal. Seeing the drone distance to you makes it easier to know the right direction for manual or automatic return to home.

6. Fly high

Keeping the drone at a high altitude (still under 400ft) makes it much less likely to crash into obstacles.

7. Don't think the obstacle sensors will save you

Obstacle avoidance sensors or cameras usually don't work at night, so you'll be the captain of the ship this time.

Why would I need to fly a drone at night?

Here's a short video I made with my top 5 night time drone shots that can maybe inspire you.

For some, it may seem obvious, but there are many reasons you might want to fly a drone at night and situations you probably haven't even considered before.

Here's a list of things you can do while flying your drone at night:

Night Photography

Mainly done in the city or well-lit places, nighttime photography requires some serious camera, preferably with a larger sensor, to capture more light. Long exposure photography can completely transform your pictures, but it requires you to have a very stable drone that can hover in the same spot. Connecting to many satellites (GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO) and using bottom-facing optical flow sensors can help a lot with drone stability.

Blending in some night Videography

Capturing some nighttime shots of a place or event can considerably increase the value and dynamic of your video. Late dinner events, concerts, or weddings usually have some of the most exciting moments later in the day, so capturing people having fun, the city lights, or even a lovely sunset can help you stand out in the world of video creators.

Security

Using the drone for surveillance of your property, construction site, commercial buildings, etc., can help you check in for burglars without having to risk yourself and spend too much time on it. More professional drones with infrared cameras are perfect for this job.

Drone Night Surveillance of your property

If you don't want nosy people around your property, or maybe manage your livestock and protect it from predators, flying a drone at night can prove quite helpful.

Drone Inspections

Certain inspection operations can be done better at night, like detecting fissures that leak heat because it is more apparent at lower temperatures and without the sun influencing the readings. This way, thermal cameras have an easier job detecting leaks.

Agriculture and pest removal

The behavior of insects can differ at night, and damaging pests can be controlled much better with nighttime operations.

Drones developed by XAG for agriculture are being used in Africa to combat the massive invasions of locusts that put African agriculture in danger. Locusts can be targeted much better at night, as they aren't spread apart in a wide area as when flying in daylight.

Filming night sport events

While it's prohibited to fly over large crowds in normal circumstances, if you have a particular nighttime sporting event and you have the proper clearance, it's a great way to capture the moment. Powerful nocturnal lights and an adequate temperature later in the day make doing sports at night quite rewarding and frequently engaged, and you'll be there to capture it all.

In conclusion, you can fly your drone in the US at night for recreation purposes, but you need to do an online training session if you plan to fly commercially under the part 107 license. Adding additional lighting and taking note of your surrounding can do a lot in keeping your drone safe.


paul posea
Paul Posea
Hi, I'm a long-time drone reviewer and I hope my articles and comparisons on this site as well as Dronesgator's youtube channel are of as much help as possible.

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