Will there be more UAS nighttime flights in the future?

By UAS Magazine Staff | August 15, 2016

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 rule for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) continued the agency’s ban on nighttime flying. However, the FAA signaled a greater willingness to consider waivers for such flights if certain conditions can be met.

Earlier this year, Toronto-based Industrial SkyWorks received a Section 333 exemption from the FAA to conduct nighttime UAS flights for Tremco Roofing and Building Maintenance in the U.S., thus becoming the first business approved for commercial operations at night.

Robb Chauvin, Tremco Roofing’s executive director of inspection services, said the company recognizes the importance to the construction industry of conducting UAS operations safely and successfully at night.

“It’s bigger than just us,” he noted. “We’re the standard-bearer on this for nighttime flight in the construction world. We understand the importance of getting it right. In a world where typically you wish your competition would never follow, this is a cutting-edge grant of exemption.”

Tremco Roofing—based in Ohio—has nearly 90 years of experience in the roofing business and uses the SkyBEAM (Building Envelope Aerial Mapping) UAS to fly building inspections. The drones employ high-definition video and thermographic (infrared) cameras to locate energy leaks, rooftop damage, deteriorating façades, safety issues and other potential problems.

“Compliance with the grant of exemption is our No. 1 priority, and that’s akin to the FAA’s No. 1 priority, which is safety of participants and non-participants,” Chauvin said.

The Small UAV Coalition filed comments supporting Skyworks’ petition for an exemption, saying it was warranted because of the level of protection provided, the operating environment where the UAS flights would occur and the training and experience of the company’s operators. In granting the exemption, the FAA required the SkyWorks UAS pilot to hold a pilot certificate that allows night operations.

In the sUAS rule, the FAA continued to express concerns about night flying, saying, “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.” It also cited the lack of approved collision avoidance technology for sUAS.

But the agency added that that it will consider granting waivers to its restriction on nighttime flights. In addition, the FAA used Part 107 to somewhat loosen restriction by allowing for sUAS flights during civil twilight—the time 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset (except in Alaska)—for drones equipped with anti-collision lights visible for at least three miles.