As a manned aircraft pilot, one of the most terrifying and exhilarating things to do is fly your plane at night. In some respects, it’s much harder—you can’t see the ground as easily, you feel very isolated and alone up in the air, and your brain can play tricks on you in the dark. And yet, in other respects, it’s easier. During the day, other aircraft can be hard to spot against a bright blue sky, but at night you can see aircraft and runway lights much more clearly.
With UAS's, it’s the same paradigm—easier in some respects, harder in others—but for a long time, flying at night wasn’t a decision we had to make. It was illegal for most people. Now, with the advent of Part 107 and the associated night waiver; as well as automatic night flight provisions under the COA, many pilots are flying their drones in the dark.
So first, let’s look at what’s required.
Light the Way
To fly a drone at night under Part 107 or a COA, you are required to have a flashing strobe light that is visible from 3 statute miles. That’s a tall order for a small light, but the DS-30 strobe does the trick. This light is available from Skyfire, on Amazon, or wherever drones are sold for about $50. It doesn’t come with a battery though, so buying either a battery pack for it, or a pre-made mounting case with a built-in battery is a must.
You are not required to have lights to illuminate the Earth’s surface from the drone, but it’s probably a good idea. We like the LumeCubes, which can be attached to most fire department drones and are remotely controlled through the LumeCube app.
You must keep your UAS under 200 feet above-ground at night, and your visual line-of-sight distance will likely be reduced.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Now let’s get to those pesky eyes of yours playing tricks on you. There are two types of light sensitive cells in our eyes - rods and cones. Rods are 10,000 times more sensitive to light than cones, and because we have a concentration of cones right in the center of our field of vision, it can create a blind spot right in the center of your eye. The fix for this - use off-center viewing to have the most effective view of something at night, rather than looking right at it. It can take 30 minutes for you to fully adjust to night vision, so make an effort to keep ambient lighting low, and avoid desensitizing your eyes.
Night operations can cause various optical illusions as well - such as auto kinesis, where bright points of light can appear to move in the sky after staring at them for several seconds. Avoid this problem by moving your gaze around your field of view, and not fixating on one point. As with any sky-scanning, it’s even more important at night to look at 10-15 degree sections of the sky for 2-3 seconds a piece to see other aircraft, and remember to use a slightly off-center angle to do it.
Flying a drone at night can be very tricky; it takes practice and patience to become accustomed to the intricacies of night flight.
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