There are many reasons why a person or organization would want to fly a drone at night—either for operations that specifically occur at night, such as delivering emergency medical equipment, to avoid other aircraft since there are fewer flights at night, or to avoid flying over people. In order to fly at night legally in the United States, a Daylight Waiver (specifically a waiver from Part 107.29 – Daylight Operations) is required. You can apply for a Daylight Waiver from Part 107.29 by submitting an application on the FAA’s Dronezone website.
Part 107 are the regulations governing the commercial drone space. When it comes to flying a drone at night, the FAA based these laws on the manned private pilot regulations Part 61 and Part 91, which prohibit flying during the night without special training and instruments. Night is defined by the FAA as the time between the end of evening civil twilight (when the geometric center of the sun reaches 6° below the horizon, or 30 minutes after official sunset) and the beginning of morning civil twilight (when the geometric center of the sun is 6° below the horizon, or 30 minutes before official sunrise). Neither private planes nor commercial drones may fly during this time without anti-collision lights as specified by the FAA, and operating a drone requires a Part 107.29 Daylight Operations waiver.
Daylight Operations waivers are the most common Part 107 waiver applied for and one of the more simple applications. The waiver is called the Daylight Operation waiver because when you ask for permission to fly at night, you’re asking to have the Part 107 rule requiring UAS pilots to fly only during daylight hours temporarily waived (Part 107.29). The application asks, in part, how a drone operator will maintain visibility and knowledge of the position, altitude, etc of their UAS during darkness and the collision avoidance mitigations that have been taken to ensure a high level of safety.
Considerations when applying for a Daylight Operations waiver
The FAA has increased the speed of their turnaround for Part 107.29 waivers, so although the process isn’t typically as long as it does for other waivers, it still takes time to go through the process, so it needs to be submitted early if you have a night operation plan. Particularly since the majority of applications are denied and you will likely need to submit additional information to re-apply. As with all waiver applications, it helps to be as thorough as you can about your safety plans, such as having a night visual observer, having the appropriate steps taken into account for reduced visibility at night, and making sure you’re operating your drone well away from the public and especially away from groups of people.
If you did write in a visual observer for your waiver to increase safety of the operation, there would be no difference between what constitutes a night vs daylight visual observer. They do not need to be licensed in anything, and should NOT use any type of optical aids to maintain sight of the UAS. The FAA does not allow these aids in other visual observer requirements, as that significantly starts to muddy the waters on the definition of line-of-sight. Reduced visibility measures include having anti-collision lights, which are (1) red or white and (2) blinking/strobing and must be visible for three statute miles or more.
By default the waiver is for a one-time only operation, such as for a concert. If you are pursuing ongoing commercial missions, make sure to word your waiver in such a way that you can attempt to get a permanent Daylight Operations waiver for night capable UAS operations.