Drone lights are probably not the first thing you think of when flying your drone. But if you are flying during sunset or sunrise, flying indoors, or plan to be flying your drone in 2021, you might want to start paying attention. Lights help your camera see, record better video and photos, make it easier to be seen by other aircraft, and be required by the FAA in 2021.
Drones are used regularly in numerous industries like inspection, public safety, and mapping. They can inspect large areas in a fraction of time and cost. Drones provide surveillance in remote areas that are not reachable on foot or by vehicle. They can even fly into toxic environments that are inhospitable to people.
One of the primary needs for drones is to capture video footage and photos. The drone's camera requires sufficient lighting to capture quality, high resolution images, and video. Lights mounted on the drone or scene lights positioned on the ground can provide that illumination.
Pilots also need to be aware of the airspace they are flying in and other aircraft that are sharing that same airspace. The FAA requires all aircraft to have bright, strobing lights on the drone for all night flights for the UAV to be clearly seen from other pilots.
Beginning in 2021, the FAA will require all drones to have anti-collision lights mounted during all flights.
Drone lights open up the possibilities of how you can use drones for a variety of applications. This guide is designed to help you understand what different types of lights there are, what you need for your drone, and the safest way to add lights to your drone.
Drone lights are compact, powerful LED lights that allow the pilot to see and be seen while flying at night. Lights mount on the drone with either a custom mount or with velcro. Some UAV manufacturers integrate lights into the drone itself. Drone lights are more powerful than the on-board colored status/directional lights.
Types of Drone Lights
Strobing lights provide visibility for the drone by other aircraft and the pilot at night. The FAA requires strobe-capable lights under FAR 107.29, which states that they must be visible from 3 statute miles away and strobe at a rate of 40-100 cycles per minute.
Strobe lights are very small and light. They weigh anywhere from a few grams to 2 oz. and can mount to the drone with Velcro or adhesive.
Short range search lights
Short-range searchlights are designed to illuminate objects up to 75 ft away from the drone. They also aid the drone's sensor visibility, allowing the bird to fly more accurately in the dark. Short range search lights will fit on smaller drones and can range from 1.5 - 6 oz.
Long distance search lights
Long-distance searchlights can illuminate objects up to 200 ft away from the drone. These are larger lights and work well with more powerful drones.
Lighting on the drone provides objective lighting for the pilot, either through the camera on the drone or from the ground. Mounted to the drone itself, it illuminates a scene, object, or area in a way that isn’t possible by conventional means on the ground. Lighting helps the pilot, visual observer, and command center to more clearly see what the camera is capturing at night, indoors, or in dark, shaded areas.
Pilot depth perception
A pilot’s depth perception is compromised during night flight. The lack of visible objects to judge distance and space make it hard to accurately determine how far away the aircraft is. This results in slower judgement and reaction to flying conditions. It’s common for a pilot to think that the drone is directly over a distant object when, in fact, the drone is still 10 - 20 ft in front of or behind the object.
The use of a drone-mounted light positioned in a 90° nadir configuration can aid the pilot in determining their position by illuminating the area directly below the drone. The pilot can make faster and more accurate position judgments when they can see what's being illuminated. In an emergency or search scenario, anything that can speed up reaction time can mean the mission's success or failure.
Drones use optical sensors placed around the body for obstacle avoidance and landing. These sensors need to be able to see objects to avoid them. When landing, the sensors measure how high from the ground the drone is to achieve a controlled landing.
At night or in a dark building, optical sensors require light to function correctly. Without light, the drone will crash into obstacles or stop and hold its position because it lacks visibility of the surrounding area.
Better camera resolution
A drone camera’s sensor is dependent on good lighting to obtain a high-resolution image. A dark scene will force the sensor to operate at a higher ISO (1600-6400) or a slower shutter speed, which results in a lower quality image.
Lighting helps the camera shoot at lower ISO (100-400) and obtain higher resolution images that provide more detail. Lighting also increases the chances of getting sharper photos without motion blur by helping the camera shoot at a faster shutter speed.
Below are samples from a 1 /2.3” camera sensor, common on many smaller platform drones, consumer drones, and action cameras. The first shot is in a darkened room that would be equivalent to dusk light 15 - 20 minutes after sunset. Notice the significant amount of noise and low resolution. The text on the vest is hard to read, and the background is muddied.
The photos below show the same scene with the same conditions, but the drone has a FoxFury Rugo light.
The drone's camera shot at a much lower ISO, resulting in more resolution and better color. The text on the vest is easily readable, and details in the background shadows are more visible.
Larger sensors (1”) will typically have better low light sensitivity, but any sensor will perform much better with increased light.
Resolution quality affects various applications differently. Fine resolution is critical in building or structure inspection for seeing small flaws, cracks, and debris. Lighting enhances the brightness, contrast, and proper color of the subject to aid in inspection.
Mapping and modeling software matches specific common elements in multiple photographs to create 2D and 3D models of a scene. The resolution and sharpness of the photos directly affect the accuracy of the model. If the images have a lot of noise, the software will have a hard time matching specific elements in the scene. Also, the software's photos with motion blur will be rejected because elements can’t be clearly identified.
Visible vs thermal (long wave infrared)
Thermal cameras are commonly used in many applications like search and rescue and firefighting. They allow the pilot or command to see heat signatures and hot spots invisible with an RGB camera, such as a warm body in a cold forest or structure fire.
However, using only the thermal camera limits what the pilot can actually see. Objects that don’t have much variance in temperature than their surrounding area are invisible to the thermal camera. A power line or tree branch may not show up on a thermal display because its temperature doesn't vary much from the surroundings.
If using only the thermal image as a display for flying, it's easy to hit these types of obstacles, even in broad daylight. This is why it’s critical to have a visible display for situational awareness.
When flying at night, flight navigation becomes even more difficult. Bright illumination from the drone will help the pilot avoid obstacles that would be invisible to thermal and dark with visible monitoring.
To Be Seen
In addition to helping the pilot with objective lighting, drone lights provide better visibility for the pilot, VO (visual observer), or other aircraft. This is important in an emergency or first responder scenario where there is a lot of activity, both in the sky and on the ground. All teams need to have a clear, definitive visual of aircraft in the sky.
FAA and Anti-collision
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates that a drone flown between sunset and sunrise must be equipped with anti-collision lighting. These lights must have a strobe function that strobes between 40 - 100 cycles/minute. They also must be visible from 3 statute miles.
Different colored lights can aid pilots in the directionality of their drones at night. Red and green lights help the pilot determine the drone's heading more easily, especially when the drone is far away.
Flying in the dark requires greater concentration from the pilot and visual observer. It's harder to see the aircraft, especially at long distances. The pilot also has a compromised depth perception, which makes their eyes work even harder. All of this leads to faster and greater eye fatigue for the pilot and VO.
A brighter strobing light mounted on the drone makes it easier for the pilot and VO to see the craft long distances. This reduces eye strain and ultimately fatigue, especially if it is a long day or night of flying.
Scene lighting should be used as a supplemental tool on the ground if the drone is flying over a specific area, such as a crime scene, accident scene, or a construction site. Scene lights provide greater and more even illumination across an entire scene. They also have larger batteries, so they have a longer runtime for extended operations.
Guide To Features
Beam type, Brightness and Distance
Different applications require different beam types from their lights. A light with a tight beam pattern will be better for a longer range search. This could be surveillance from a higher altitude or search and rescue.
A wide flood beam will be suited for close-range application where broad and even light is more advantageous, such as an indoor flight that requires sensors to see doorways and walls.
Most drone lights are powered by either Lithium-Ion or LiPo batteries. Both of these are rechargeable and provide a respectable amount of runtime given their small size and weight.
Lithium-Ion batteries are the most common battery type for drone lights.
LiPo batteries have excellent power-to-weight and power-to-runtime ratios. The downside to LiPo batteries is that after a certain number of recharge cycles, they run out of charge power.
LiPo batteries will become unstable if they are not used for a long period of time. This instability can result in thermal flash and fire.
Fixed Battery vs. Removable Battery vs. Wired Power
Drone light batteries are usually built into the light itself or are removable from the light for recharging.
Fixed battery lights require the light to be removed from the drone, which means the pilot must have multiple lights accessible to switch when one runs out of power.
A removable battery allows the light head to stay affixed to the drone while the rest is removed for charging.
Some lights are hard-wired or directly connected to the drone's power supply. This is usually a custom configuration that requires a port or connection on the drone. A benefit to a hard-wired light is it allows the pilot to turn the light on and off or switch modes through the controller.
Weight is an important consideration when choosing lights. If the lights are too heavy, it will negatively affect the runtime and performance of the drone. It’s advisable to carefully test your drone with lights to determine that it is safe to fly with the additional payload.
It's important to position the lights in a position neutral to the center of gravity on the drone with any light configuration.
Durability and waterproofing
Waterproofing on drone lights is a big benefit. Even though most drones are not very waterproof themselves, manufacturers are designing more waterproof drones to meet professional users' needs, especially in public safety and industrial applications.
Pilots in these industries often need to fly in adverse conditions like rain, sleet, or snow. The lights on their drones need to be able to handle those same conditions. Also, if there is an accident and the drone falls in a lake or river, the lights can be recovered from the wreckage.
Applications for Drone Lighting
Assess an active fire or damage An aerial view of a fire incident can provide additional intel to firefighters on the ground. A drone positioned on the backside of a building or above the roof can see activity that can't be seen from the initial angle of attack.
Thermal imaging can identify hotspots in the roof where the fire is building up inside the structure. Thermal will be the drone's primary use, but lights will illuminate any hazards like branches or power lines when flying at night.
A drone positioned high above a scene provides an overwatch of an incident or area. This gives incident command with a wide-scale visual of everything that's happening. The drone can provide intel to firefighters on the ground of problems or issues that they may not be aware of or can't see from the ground.
Drones can be flown into areas that are structurally not safe for investigators to physically go into, such as a multi-story building where the floors are damaged and compromised. After a fire, there is no electricity in the building. A UAV equipped with lights can be flown through the building and provide a video feed for investigators.
If a victim is stranded in an area where responders can't reach them, a drone can deliver medicine or first aid to the victim. Searchlights on the drone can be used to find the victim and drop supplies to them.
Lights on the drone help responders to locate the victim and accurately deliver goods to them. The drone then acts as a beacon for responders to access the victim.
The deployment of drones in wildfire situations is beneficial for overwatch. The drone provides overwatch for the Incident Command to monitor fire spread, fire lines, and safe zones. The drone can also assess unburned fuels that pose a threat on the front end of the fire.
In locations where retreat and escape for firefighters can be difficult, the drone provides critical real-time data and intel to assist in their survival.
Drones are used for surveillance in warrant serve scenarios. The drone, equipped with a telephoto camera, monitors the property, entrances, how many people are present, and if they are armed. This intel is valuable to law enforcement to know what to plan for.
The drone can also provide overwatch of the scene during the warrant serve to see if anybody exits out of a back or side door or is armed or threatening.
Drones provide a means to search the inside of a building during a hostage scenario, bomb threat, or active shooter scenario. The drone provides the ability to gather intel without putting officers into life-threatening situations.
Drones equipped with lights are invaluable for tactical teams. SWAT teams can recon an area or building without putting officers in danger.
Teams get a visual assessment of the area with a constant white light and RGB camera. They can deploy a drone with a distraction device like strobing light and loud sound ahead of a SWAT team to provide a tactical advantage for the team.
Another solution is utilizing IR lighting along with thermal or night vision goggles. This illuminates an area for the SWAT team without providing light for suspects.
A drone, equipped with sensors and lights, can fly into a structure with a chemical leak or toxic gas present. The sensors detect the gas or chemicals. The lights will provide illumination for the camera to pilot through the structure. The lights will also assist the camera in capturing a high resolution image of damage or instrument settings for assessment.
Drones are quickly becoming an indispensable tool for accident investigators. Investigation teams can quickly photograph a crime or accident scene to create 3D models. They can then open up roadways faster after an accident.
While drones are used mostly during the day, night reconstruction has proved more difficult. Using portable, high powered scene lights allows drones to capture high resolution images of the accident scene. Those high quality images are essential for building a quality model of the scene.
Search and rescue
The lights on the drone are used as spotlights for searching the ground. The drone can be flown over more difficult areas, or even impossible, for ground search parties to access. When the drone locates a lost or injured person, the drone's lights can act as a beacon for search parties to move towards to assist the lost person. Once the victim has been reached, the drone acts as a beacon to help lead the party back out of the area.
Most tower inspections are completed during the day. Some software apps work better with footage shot at night. If the drone illuminates the subject and the background is dark, the software can better isolate the tower and differentiate between the tower and the background.
A farmer can use a drone equipped with lights to assess the damage from a storm in a fraction of the time and hassle then it would take by driving or walking the property.
In some cases, the farmer may not be able to travel over roads that are too damaged or flooded from water. A flight around a decent-sized farm could take 15-30 minutes. A farmer can immediately schedule repairs or harvesting labor to avoid loss of crops.
Bridge and structure
Tens of thousands of bridges in the US are structurally deficient or in need of repair. Drones can inspect bridges in a fraction of time as it would take inspectors to physically inspect them. In some cases, there are areas on large bridges that are extremely difficult or impossible for inspectors to access.
Bridges are inherently dark and shadowed. Drones are perfect tools for these situations. Lights on the drone can light up dark corners and recesses on the underside of bridges for photos and video feeds.
Just because the sun goes down doesn’t mean the need to fly ceases. While most flight operations are done during the day, some circumstances require night flight as well. Sometimes, that’s when drones can be the most effective.
Lights help us to see where we are flying or what we are searching for. Whether it's searching the interior of an abandoned building or looking for a lost hiker in the wilderness, drone lights make it possible to use drones as search tools at night or in the dark.
But more importantly, lights allow us to fly safer by making the drone more visible to other pilots in the sky. Up until now, the FAA only mandated that drones be equipped with lights when flown at night. Upcoming changes from the FAA will require drones to have anti-collision lights for all flights, no matter what time of day.
There are more and more types of lights introduced to the market every day. It's important to look at your needs to determine what size, brightness, and features you need to accomplish your mission.
That depends on the types of work you are doing and what you need your drone to do. Sometimes, the big, expensive drone is overkill for your needs, and a smaller, less expensive drone will handle all of your requirements. The same goes for lighting.
The proper lighting will make your flights more successful and safer.