How to Fly Your Drone at Night-(Part 107 Night Waiver)


107-night-waiver-fly-cowInterested in obtaining a Part 107 night waiver to fly your drone at night? This article will dive into the different definitions of night, civil twilight, and what is legally required to fly at night. To start off, this article is focusing on operations under Part 107, not model aircraft operating under Part 101. Part 107 remote pilots will need a waiver from 107.29 which is sometimes called a Part 107 night waiver.

Their are different standards and definitions floating around causing all sorts of confusion in this area. The FAA uses different terms in the regulations: night, sunset, civil twilight, 1 hour after sunset, and 30 minutes after sunset. I’m going to throw all the terms out on the table and explain them so you know what is required of you.  If you sign up for the newsletter and confirm your email, you’ll be sent an email with a link to download the above infographic to keep with you on your device. Additionally, it is optimized for 8.5×11 pieces of paper. You could print it out and keep it with you or you can give it out.

The Different Definitions in the Federal Aviation Regulations

The bold emphasis is mine. Pay particular attention to the words and context.

14 CFR § 1.1 says, “Night means the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the Air Almanac, converted to local time.”

14 CFR § 61.57(b) says, “Night takeoff and landing experience. (1) Except as provided in paragraph (e) of this section, no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise, unless within the preceding 90 days that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise[.]”

14 CFR § 91.209 says, “No person may: 

(a) During the period from sunset to sunrise (or, in Alaska, during the period a prominent unlighted object cannot be seen from a distance of 3 statute miles or the sun is more than 6 degrees below the horizon)— (1) Operate an aircraft unless it has lighted position lights; . . .

(b) Operate an aircraft that is equipped with an anticollision light system, unless it has lighted anticollision lights. However, the anticollision lights need not be lighted when the pilot-in-command determines that, because of operating conditions, it would be in the interest of safety to turn the lights off.”

14 CFR § 107.29 says,

“(a) No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft system during night.

(b) No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft system during periods of civil twilight unless the small unmanned aircraft has lighted anti-collision lighting visible for at least 3 statute miles. The remote pilot in command may reduce the intensity of the anti-collision lighting if he or she determines that, because of operating conditions, it would be in the interest of safety to do so.

(c) For purposes of paragraph (b) of this section, civil twilight refers to the following:

(1) Except for Alaska, a period of time that begins 30 minutes before official sunrise and ends at official sunrise;

(2) Except for Alaska, a period of time that begins at official sunset and ends 30 minutes after official sunset; and

(3) In Alaska, the period of civil twilight as defined in the Air Almanac.”

Notice that different parts of the FARs are cited. Basically, if you are a commercial drone operator, you have the option of operating under Part 107 or under a Section 333 exemption and all the applicable regulations.

Summarizing What is and is NOT Required

  • Part 107

    • You are limited to daylight operations (sunrise to sunset).
    • However, you may operate at civil twilight provided you have an appropriate anti-collision system.
    • You cannot operate at night unless you have a Part 107 night waiver
  • Section 333 Operators

    • 333 operations “may not be conducted during night, as defined in 14 CFR § 1.1.” Part 1.1’s definition of night is tied back to the Air Almanac while Part 107 definition of civil twilight is fixed, unless you are in Alaska.
      • Why is this interesting? The length of twilight changes depending on what latitude you are operating at and also at what time of the year. Florida has a greater duration of twilight during the winter than during the summer. Additionally, Maine has a greater amount of twilight than Florida on the same day because Maine is higher in latitude. See The Duration of Twilight, and if you are in the U.S., page 1 of this graph. Another interesting thing is that for those of us living in Florida, we got a good deal and picked up more operating time under 107 than those operating under a 333 exemption; however, those in the northern latitudes got goofed over and could actually operate longer under a 333 exemption than they could under 107.  I used the U.S. Naval Observatory calculator to compare Miami to Seattle during the winter and summer solstices.

         

        Difference Between Sunset & Sunset Civil Twilight at the Summer SolsticeDifference Between Sunset & Sunset Civil Twilight at the Winter Solstice

        Miami, Florida

        26 Minutes

        25 Minutes

        Seattle, Washington41 Minutes

        37 Minutes

        So for those of you operating in the higher latitudes, you could try and figure out all of this juggling of the 107 and 333 exemption stuff, or just hire me to get you a Part 107 night waiver so you do not have to worry about this. 🙂

    • 14 CFR § 61.57(b) does NOT apply because you aren’t carrying passengers. Interestingly, some of the early 333s had a 90-day currency requirement (see Aerial Mob’s exemption at restriction 12) but the 90-day currency situation was done away with as time went on with the 333s.
    • First off, this section is only for 333 operators, not 107 operators. 14 CFR 91.209(a) is applicable only to those operating at night. To date, Industrial Skyworks is the only 333 exemption to have been approved for night operations. Interestingly, they received an exemption from 91.209. 14 CFR 91.209(b) is applicable only to those drones equipped with anti-collision lights.

Why the FAA Requires a Part 107 Night Waiver for 107 Operators

The FAA gave us very insightful comments on pages 42,102-103 of the Operation and Certification of Small
Unmanned Aircraft Systems that was published in the Federal Register.

Nighttime operations pose a higher safety risk because the reduced visibility makes it more difficult for the person maintaining visual line of sight to see the location of other aircraft. While the existence of other lighted manned aircraft may be apparent due to their lighting, the distance and movement of small unmanned aircraft relative to the distance and movement of those aircraft is often difficult to judge due to the relative size of the aircraft. In addition, visual autokinesis (the apparent movement of a lighted object) may occur when the person maintaining visual line of sight stares at a single light source for several seconds on a dark night. For this reason, darkness makes it more difficult for that person to perceive reference points that could be used to help understand the position and movement of the lighted manned aircraft, the small unmanned aircraft, or other lighted object.

The lack of reference points at night is problematic for small UAS subject to part 107 because they are not required to have any equipage that would help identify the precise location of the small unmanned aircraft. As such, a remote pilot in command operating under this rule will generally rely on unaided human vision to learn details about the position, attitude, airspeed, and heading of the unmanned aircraft. This ability may become impaired at night due to a lack of reference points because all a remote pilot may see of his or her aircraft (if it is lighted) is a point of light moving somewhere in the air. For example, a lighted small unmanned aircraft flying at night may appear to be close by, but due to a lack of reference points, that aircraft may actually be significantly farther away than the remote pilot perceives. An impairment to the remote pilot’s ability to know the precise position, attitude, and altitude of the small unmanned aircraft would significantly increase the risk that the small unmanned aircraft will collide with another aircraft.

In addition to avoiding collision with other aircraft, remote pilots in command must also avoid collision with people on the ground, as well as collision with ground-based structures and obstacles. This is a particular concern for small UAS because they operate at low altitudes. When operating at night, a remote pilot may have difficulty avoiding collision with people or obstacles on the ground which may not be lighted and as a result, may not be visible to the pilot or the visual observer. As such, this rule will not allow small UAS subject to part 107 to operate at night (outside of civil twilight) without a waiver. . .

Civil twilight is a period of time that, with the exception of Alaska, generally takes place 30 minutes before official sunrise and 30 minutes after official sunset. The FAA agrees with commenters that operations during civil twilight could be conducted safely under part 107 with additional risk mitigation because the illumination provided during civil twilight is sufficient for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished during clear weather conditions. As a result, many of the safety concerns associated with nighttime operations are mitigated by the lighting that is present during civil twilight. That is why current section 333 exemptions permit twilight UAS operations. Accordingly, this rule will allow a small UAS to be operated during civil twilight.

However, while civil twilight provides more illumination than nighttime, the level of illumination that is provided during civil twilight is less than the illumination provided between sunrise and sunset. To minimize the increased risk of collision associated with reduced lighting and visibility during twilight operations, this rule will require small unmanned aircraft operated during civil twilight to be equipped with anti-collision lights that are visible for at least 3 statute miles.

A remote pilot in command may reduce the intensity of the anti-collision lights if, because of operating conditions, it would be in the interest of safety to do so. For example, the remote pilot in command may reduce the intensity of anti-collision lights to minimize the effects of loss of night vision adaptation. The FAA emphasizes that anti-collision lighting will be required under this rule only for civil twilight operations; a small unmanned aircraft that is flown between sunrise and sunset need not be equipped with anti-collision lights.

The FAA acknowledges that current exemptions issued under Public Law 112–95, section 333 allow civil twilight operations without a requirement for anti-collision lighting. However, the section 333 exemptions do not exempt small UAS operations from complying with § 91.209(a), which requires lighted position lights when an aircraft is operated during a period from sunset to sunrise (or, in Alaska, during the period a prominent unlighted object cannot be seen from a distance of 3 statute miles or the sun is more than 6 degrees below the horizon). As such, UAS currently operating under a section 333 exemption have lighting requirements when operating during civil twilight.

However, while current section 333 exemptions rely on position lighting, it would be impractical for this rule to prescribe specifications for position lighting for civil twilight operations because a wider range of small unmanned aircraft will likely operate under part 107. Position lighting may not be appropriate for some of these aircraft. Thus, instead of position lighting, small unmanned aircraft operating under part 107 will be required to have anti-collision lights when operating during civil twilight. The FAA also notes that meteorological conditions, such as haze, may sometimes reduce visibility during civil twilight operations. Accordingly, the FAA emphasizes that, as discussed in the following section of this preamble, this rule also requires that the minimum flight visibility, as observed from the location of the ground control station, must be no less than 3 statute miles.”

One Big Benefit to Possessing a Part 107 Night Waiver

Want to Fly Near a Class D Airport Without an Airspace Authorization? A Part 107 night waiver might be your solution.

Sometimes you get a job that is last moment. You don’t have time to obtain an airspace authorization or airspace waiver. You can just wait till the airport tower closes and fly under a Part 107 night waiver. 
Most controlled airports close at around 9-11PM local time. Not every airport is 24/7. Check the chart supplement (formerly known as the airport facility directory)  for the airport and see when the airport closes. You should also see which type of airspace it turns into. MAKE SURE IT TURNS INTO CLASS G! The time the tower will be in operation will be listed in Zulu time. Remember to convert to local time by looking at the UTC correction at the top. Just check to make sure in the chart supplement as I think a few towered airports might revert to Class E at the surface which requires an authorization.

You might have noticed something that looked like a  double plus + symbol right next to the Z in the tower’s operational time. It is important that you know what it means so you know WHEN exactly the tower closes or opens. This is what the chart supplement’s legend says:

Hours of operation of all facilities are expressed in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and shown as “Z” time. The directory indicates the number of hours to be subtracted from UTC to obtain local standard time and local daylight saving time UTC–5(–4DT). The symbol ‡ indicates that during periods of Daylight Saving Time (DST) effective hours will be one hour earlier than shown. In those areas where daylight saving time is not observed the (–4DT) and ‡ will not be shown. Daylight saving time is in effect from 0200 local time the second Sunday in March to 0200 local time the first Sunday in November. Canada and all U.S. Conterminous States observe daylight saving time except Arizona and Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. If the state observes daylight saving time and the operating times are other than daylight saving times, the operating hours will include the dates, times and no ‡ symbol will be shown, i.e., April 15–Aug 31 0630–1700Z, Sep 1–Apr 14 0600–1700Z.

class-g-chart-supplement-part-107-night-waiver

Procedures

Step 1: Check the airport’s chart supplement listing to make sure it reverts to class G.  Note: the chart supplement legend says this:

When part–time Class C or Class D airspace defaults to Class E, the core surface area becomes Class E. This will be formatted as:
AIRSPACE: CLASS C svc ‘‘times’’ ctc APP CON other times CLASS E:
or
AIRSPACE: CLASS D svc ‘‘times’’ other times CLASS E.

When a part–time Class C, Class D or Class E surface area defaults to Class G, the core surface area becomes Class G up to, but not
including, the overlying controlled airspace. Normally, the overlying controlled airspace is Class E airspace beginning at either 700´
or 1200´ AGL and may be determined by consulting the relevant VFR Sectional or Terminal Area Charts. This will be formatted as:
AIRSPACE: CLASS C svc ‘‘times’’ ctc APP CON other times CLASS G, with CLASS E 700´ (or 1200´) AGL & abv:
or
AIRSPACE: CLASS D svc ‘‘times’’ other times CLASS G with CLASS E 700´ (or 1200´) AGL & abv:
or
AIRSPACE: CLASS E svc ‘‘times’’ other times CLASS G with CLASS E 700´ (or 1200´) AGL & abv.

Step 2: Figure out what the hours are. Keep in mind the ++ thing mentioned above.

Step 3: Check the NOTAMs for that airport to make sure those hours haven’t changed. I did come across this one time where the tower hours were changed via NOTAM. You might get a chance to take off sooner or have to wait till later.

 

Conclusion:

I have 14 Part 107 night waiver approvals already. I’m noticing that night waivers are on average taking about 26 days for my clients. The fastest ever was 13 days. The FAA is sure speeding things up. If you need help with a night waiver, please contact me.

I highly suggest you take time to browse through the other high quality Part 107 Articles I have created.

Jonathan Rupprecht

Mr. Rupprecht is an aviation attorney who focuses on drones. Read more about his background as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University grad, and legal author. He has had media appearances on Forbes, Newsweek, Politico, NPR, Marketwatch, The Independent, Motherboard, and other sources. Feel free to send Jonathan a message here.