It's a bird… It's a plane… It's Superman!
No, it’s actually a drone…
Superman jokes aside, drones are getting mass adopted and their consumer base is increasing even as I’m writing this. Because of how cheap they’re getting, you can bet that everyone and their grandmother will be flying drones in the next decade. The bad news is drones can also be used for nefarious reasons…
Creeps can use drones to spy on you, while criminals can even use drones to do physical harm to someone. Which brings us to the topic of this article, how to spot drones ahead of time from the ground.
During the day, the body of a drone will look like a small dot in the sky, big or small depending on its altitude. If it’s very high, it’ll look like a dark silhouette. At night, the blinking light of a drone will be like a distant airplane at night and the drone’s body usually can’t be seen.
I’ll give you some tips on how to spot drones in this article, during both day and night. Just know that it's illegal to fly over someone you don’t know so you’re perfectly within your rights if you decide to report the drone’s pilot.
Are drones even visible from the ground? That’s the question we need to ask first because while some drones have a x200 zoom (like the DJI Matrice 30), the human eye has no such convenient feature.
Drones are usually visible from the ground as long as they don’t exceed an altitude of 1500 - 2000 feet. They usually look like a small dot in the sky with blinking lights that are minimally visible during the day and quite visible at night (if it’s not very high).
But that’s IF the drone is within reasonable altitude. Most pilots fly their drones at the limit of what’s allowed by the FAA which is up to 400ft. Small unmanned aircraft systems piloted by hobbyists or professionals are permitted to fly to a maximum altitude of 400 ft, so that they don’t interfere with other manned aircraft flying higher up. (Good luck spotting a white DJI mini 2 at a 400ft altitude on a sunny day!)
In case the drone isn’t small and isn’t that far away, you can usually see its underside with the camera attached, perhaps even hear its buzzing sound usually emitted by drones. You can also probably spot the drone’s wings and landing apparatus if it's low enough.
At night, it gets even easier to spot a drone. The sounds it emits will usually be much more pronounced since there isn’t much noise during night. And the lights that drones emit make it easier to spot, but also easier to mistake for a distant airplane.
The lights that drones produce vary in color and may blink rapidly. Some drones also produce a bright strobe of light that can be seen for some miles if you have a good eye.
If you’re worried about someone spying on you at night with their drone, as you should be, then I have good news for you. Spotting a drone at night is actually easier than doing it in the morning when the sun’s bright.
If you want to spot a drone at night, you need to look for the sound the propellers make, the red and green navigation lights, and potentially a strobe light. You can also use a radar-like device to detect the presence of a drone close to you, even at night.
When they fly, drones emit lights that can easily be spotted provided there isn’t much light pollution around. Some drones emit blinking lights, others non-blinking lights, and some both. The most common light colors you’ll find in drones are red, green and white.
Drones usually have two types of lights:
If a drone somehow doesn’t have light at night but you can see a shadow that looks like a drone. Listen closely for a buzzing sound, if you hear something like a bee's hum then you can be sure it’s a drone. An illegal one at that since drones aren’t allowed to be flown at night without lights.
Sometimes. If a drone is stationary and is just floating at night, it can look like a star if it’s too far away, you’ll usually see a blinking light but can’t tell exactly what color it is because of the distance, something that can be associated with stars.
If it’s night and the drone is that far away though, there is nothing to worry about since they can’t get a picture/video of you either way.
Drones have two types of lights as we’ve discussed, navigation lights which help the pilot orient their drone at night and anti-collision lights which are actually mandatory.
Navigation lights are steadily lit, they don’t blink, and are usually green and red. Some drones use blue light but most use red and green. Anti-collision lights have a strobing effect and are usually white in color.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates that a drone flown between sunset and sunrise must be equipped with anti-collision lighting. These lights must have a strobe function that strobes between 40 - 100 cycles/minute. They also must be visible from 3 statute miles.
This is a very good question that I’ve answered before and in great detail in another article, but I’ll get into key information in this section.
A typical drone can clearly see a person at night up to 50 meters away, after which point it can only see a blurred figure. Unless they have night vision, drones can see objects at night only if they're well lit.
I wouldn’t worry about night vision, a drone pilot with the fund to buy such a drone would usually not bother with voyeurism.
Below is a drone image of me in my room, 50 meters apart. Can you spot me? ….Neither can I.
We’ve covered enough at this point for you to easily spot a drone if it’s nearby. But how can you be sure that it’s watching you specifically and isn’t just some hobbyist trying to take some night reels?
I myself like to fly drones at night sometimes and have got in trouble with neighbors who mistakenly thought I was filming them. When in reality, I was only taking night videos of my city.
The best way to tell if a drone is watching you at night is to detect if the red lights of the drone are facing your direction and the green lights away from you. This means that the drone has the camera oriented towards your general direction.
However, keep in mind that even so, the drone camera might capture something else entirely. If you can't hear the propellers spinning well or can't see the drone orientation, it is most certainly too far to be able to spy on you (especially at night).
To summarize, drones can be spotted during the day if they aren’t that far away from you, usually you can spot them during a non sunny day for up to two miles. At night it becomes easier since drones are required to have lights that can be spotted from 3 miles away.