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How to Spot a Drone at Night (and how far can they see?)

Guide and test to see if drones can spy at night
spotting-drones-at-night-and-how-far-can-a-drone-see-at-ngiht

Ever found yourself curious (or even worried) about those mysterious drones buzzing around your property after the sun sets? Well, it’s natural to question whether they’re just passing by or have their ‘eyes’ on you.

But before you can tell what a drone is doing, you need first to spot it at night yourself.

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.

In this article, I'll test how far a drone can see at night, how far you can see it and how loud it is at different heights to see if it's actually possible for drones to spy on you at night or not.

In the end, I'll cover all the ways in which you can spot a drone at night.

What do drones look like at night?

To detect a drone at night, we first need to figure out how drones actually look, what lights they have, and how far you can actually see them.

For night-time flying, all hobbyist drones are designed to have a set of four navigational lights, two pairs of red and green. Commercial drone pilots need to have a powerful strobe light that can be seen flashing from at least 3 miles away. Here's my complete guide on how to fly a drone at night.

Most drones look like red and green dots in the sky, while commercially flown ones have a very bright (usually white) strobe light that can be seen flashing up to 3 miles away.

how-a-drone-looks-at-night-with-red-and-green-lights

How far can drones see at night?

While drone cameras vary in terms of their low-light performance, most can see just about as fairly well at night as they can in the day. In fact, I conducted an experiment to truly test their limits and reach a quantitative figure. Here’re the brief results. 

A typical drone can clearly see a person at night up to 165 feet (50m) meters away, after which it can only see a blurred figure. Unless they have night vision, drones can see objects at night only if they're well-lit. 

In my experiment, I elevated my drone to different altitudes to assess the change in its image quality and its visibility as a drone to bystanders. Let’s take a look at some of the visuals!

What can a drone see from 10 feet (3m) at night

I took a lot of pictures and videos with the DJI Mini 2, still one of the most popular consumer drones to see how well it can see at night at different ranges.

As you can see, from just 10 feet alone, it can clearly see what you're doing indoors, but it's also super easy to see the drone and especially hear it.

what-a-drone-can-see-at-3-meters-outside-my-house

What can a drone see from 40 feet (12m) away at night

There isn't enough light inside to make this a clear image, but you can see that even at a pretty close range, it has a difficult time showing what's indoors

what-a-drone-can-see-at-night-at-12-metres-away

40 feet (12 m) but with 3 x zoom and better light

My grandpa had the best position possible, good interior lighting, and went half naked, so he did make for an exceptional subject.

This time I decided to zoom in 3 times from the same distance and as you can see you can still tell some details apart. However, if you're indoors it's going to have a really difficult time to capture anything relevant at this distance. It's also quite easy to spot the drone at this distance because of the sound and lights.

12-meters-away-with-3-times-zoom-at-night-with-dji-mini-2

80 feet away (25 meters)

At this distance it's almost impossible to detect what anyone is doing and you can barely make out some shapes, even with a 3 times zoom and clear indoors lighting. 

Without much indoor lighting, it’s difficult to spot the person being there at all. At this point you have about as much privacy as you would if a neighboring building had a direct view into your residence.

25-meters-away-drone-night-shot-and-how-good-it-can-see-at-this-distance25-meters-away-with-3-times-zoom-drone-at-night

165 feet away (50 meters)

While there are more expensive drones on the market with better lenses and zoom capability, it takes tens of thousands of dollars to get an image better than this by much.

The typical neighborhood spy will get very similar drone images to what you're seeing here at night.

As you can see, from this distance, there's barely any change anyone can see what you're doing, and while the drone is more difficult to hear, you can still take notice of it if you pay some attention.

50-meters-away-drone-night-shot

How do you tell if a drone is watching you at night?

If you see a pair of red and green dots at night and hear it buzzing around you or your property, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's spying on you.

I'm a drone pilot myself, and people sometimes panic that I'm recording them, while in fact, I'm simply taking some night shots of the 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 in your direction and the green lights are facing in the other. This would mean that the drone has its 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).

How far away can you hear a drone at night?

While sight is a great measure to know if a drone can capture footage of you, sound is just as good of an indicator that the drone is close or far enough to see you.

You can clearly hear any multi-copter drone if it gets closer than 100 ft (30m)  to you, and some louder ones can be heard clearly even 330 ft (100m) away.

Sound is a great indicator if a drone can spy on you or not as we've seen previously that drones farther than 100m don't stand a chance of capturing a clear image of you at night especially.

How can you spot a drone at night (5 ways)?

If you're sure someone is flying a drone around your property at night, it's best to make sure of this fact and use some proven detection methods.

Do drone detector apps work?

You might find some apps in your phone app store that claim to detect drones by capturing their radio waves and telling you what kind of drone it is and where the signal comes from.

Phone drone detector apps don't work, as most drone signals are encrypted, and even if using wifi, it's impossible to tell if the drone is close to you or far away. 

There are systems out there that allow more professional detection of drones but are usually used by the military, not just a simple phone app.

Watch out for the drone lights

As we've mentioned before, watching the lights of the drone is the easiest and most effective way to spot it at night.

If you see two pairs of red and green lights in the sky, it's probably just a hobbyist drone. If you can barely detect these lights, it's most certainly too far away to be able to spy on you anyway.

If there's a powerful white light flashing in the sky, it's probably a commercially used drone, and since the pilot made it so visible, it's perhaps not intended for spying on anyone.

Check out my article on the best anti-collision drone lights on the market.

Listen to the Sound of the propellers

As someone who has flown and reviewed dozens of drones, from beginner quadcopters to professional ones, I have concluded that all drones are super noisy, and even more so at night when the town’s asleep. 

This means that if you are outside and there's not much noise around you, it's almost impossible not to hear a drone before it sees you. Of course, there are fixed-wing drones with expensive night vision cameras or zoom cameras that can make considerably less noise, but these are so expensive that nobody in their right mind would buy them just to spy on someone.

Recognize flight patterns

Spotting a drone at night becomes easier once you understand their typical flight patterns. Drones have distinct maneuvers that set them apart in the night sky. For instance, I've noticed they often hover with impressive steadiness, unlike most other flying objects. 

They can also make sudden, sharp turns and shifts in direction, a capability not seen in planes or birds. Additionally, drones usually fly at lower altitudes, often below 400 feet, as per FAA regulations. Recognizing these patterns, like straight-line paths or circling around points of interest, helps you quickly identify a drone against the backdrop of the night sky.

Infrared motion detection cameras

Infrared cameras can see much clearer at night compared to the human eye. So even if someone decided to take off their drone lights entirely and use the most silent propellers possible to get close, you can still detect the drone and record it in the night with a lot of clarity.

You can install regular infrared cameras that work non-stop or motion detection ones that start recording only when they detect any motion. The problem with motion detection is that the drone might be too far away for them to trigger, as motion detection usually works between 20 and 30 feet.

Microwave motion sensors 

Microwave Motion sensors can be connected to lights mounted atop each window, and they operate on the same principle as a highway speed gun used by the police. It's basically like a bat that uses echolocation, as they send electromagnetic waves to objects and measure the movement when they bounce back, triggering your lights and letting you know there's something outside, in case you can't hear the drone from indoors.

Radar detectors 

Radar is the more hardcore solution, as radar detectors for drones can get quite expensive, but they can monitor a larger space compared to microwaves and can even differentiate between drones and birds.

What To Do If You Spot a Drone?

In an era where drones are increasingly common, spotting one at night can be unsettling. It's important to know how to respond appropriately, balancing privacy concerns with safety and legality. Here are the steps to take if you find yourself in this situation.

  • Stay Calm and Observe:

Initially, stay calm and carefully observe the drone's behavior. Assess whether it's simply passing by or exhibiting potentially invasive actions.

  • Document the Incident:

If the drone appears to be hovering close to your property or engaging in suspicious activity, start documenting. Use your phone or camera to take videos or photos, ensuring you capture the time and location.

  • Evaluate Privacy Concerns:

Consider if the drone is infringing on your privacy or safety. If it's flying at a considerable distance and not directly over your property, it might not be a cause for immediate concern.

  • Contact Authorities:

In cases where you feel your privacy is being invaded or if the drone poses a safety risk, contact local law enforcement. Provide them with the documented evidence and details of the incident.

  • Avoid Direct Confrontation:

It's absolutely crucial not to engage directly with the drone. Do not attempt to shoot it down or physically interfere with its flight, as this could lead to legal repercussions and safety hazards.

  • Follow Up:

After reporting, stay in touch with the authorities for any follow-up actions or to provide additional information if required.

Distinguishing Drones from Distant Airplanes

When looking up at the night sky, it's fascinating to see various objects flying high above, but it can be tricky to tell whether you're looking at a drone or a distant airplane.

Let's delve into some clear indicators that can help you distinguish between these two types of aerial vehicles.

  • Size Observation:

Drones are typically much smaller than airplanes.

If an object appears smaller and closer to the ground, it's likely a drone.

  • Movement Patterns:

Drones can hover, move sideways, and fly backward.

Airplanes have a steady, linear flight path.

  • Lighting Patterns:

Drones usually have red and green lights. They may also feature white lights at the front and red lights at the rear. Additionally, drones may have green and blue lights on the sides. The lights on drones can blink in unique patterns, especially to indicate a low battery or signal loss.

  • Sound Identification:

Drones emit a consistent buzzing sound, akin to a swarm of bees.

This sound is distinct from the engine noise of airplanes.

Conclusion - Can drones spy on you at night?

While modern drones can come with a zoom camera, most hobby-grade ones don't have the technology to film you before you detect them by the noise they make. Therefore it would require a costly drone ( I'm talking $10,000+) to be able to spy on you to some extent before you notice it in the air.

Most drones can't spy on you at night before you can detect them by the propeller noise they make or simply their flashing lights.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do most drones have night vision?

Many advanced drones come equipped with night vision capabilities. However, not all drones have this feature, especially basic models.

What color are drones at night?

Drones at night often display lights in various colors, typically red, green, white, or blue. These lights help in navigation and visibility.

Why are drones following me at night?

If a drone is following you at night, it could be for surveillance or monitoring purposes. It's also possible that a drone enthusiast is simply flying their drone in your vicinity.

Is it normal to see drones at night?

Yes, it's becoming increasingly normal to see drones at night, especially in urban areas. Drones are used for various purposes, including photography and surveillance.

Can weather conditions affect the visibility of drones at night?

Yes, weather conditions like fog, rain, or heavy cloud cover can significantly reduce the visibility of drones at night. These conditions can obscure the lights and silhouette of a drone, making it harder to spot.

How far away can a typical drone be spotted at night? 

A drone can usually be spotted from a distance of up to 3 miles at night, primarily due to its navigation and anti-collision lights. However, this range can vary based on the drone's size, the brightness of its lights, and the observer's vision.


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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