The first Section 333 Exemption permitting UAS operations at night has been granted. Industrial Skyworks and Aeryon went through a rigorous 17-month process to get the authority to operate the Skyranger after sunset. The resulting 24-page grant of exemption has an analysis of the risks and what the FAA thinks is necessary to mitigate them.
The FAA notes in the Grant of Exemption that the requirements for night flying are different from day flying regardless of whether the aircraft is manned or unmanned. In particular, sport and recreational pilots do not receive training in “principles of night vision and night vision illusions . . . and how to adapt to them . . . .” In order to mitigate this risk, Industrial Skyworks proposed a UAS training program as part of its safety case to ensure that a pilot-in-command has accumulated nighttime operating skills, knowledge, and experience prior to conducting any commercial operations. Even with this additional training, the Grant of Exemption does not permit holders of sport or recreational pilot certificates to fly UAS at night. The FAA concluded that only airline transport, commercial, or private pilots have a sufficient knowledge base for these types of operations.
Industrial Skyworks also proposed a number of additional operational limitations to help reduce the risks, including day time site assessment for obstacles, controlling access to the operational area, and a lighted take-off and landing area. Based on this, the FAA did not impose any additional restrictions on operating near people, and will permit site personnel to be within 500 feet of the operation, so long as the aircraft is not flown over them, they receive a full safety briefing prior to flight, and the exemption holder has an operations manual that addresses all aspects of safe UAS operations.
With regard to aircraft lighting, the FAA agreed that the traditional red/green position lights did not make sense because the Aeryon Skyranger is a symmetrical quadcopter, and there is no consistent forward and aft position on the aircraft. The FAA did, however, require an anti-collision light on the UAS which is visible at 5,000 feet pursuant to 14 CFR 91.209(b). Because the Skyranger has such a light, the FAA found it met this requirement.
It is important to note that, while this exemption permits night operations, it does not permit beyond visual line of sight flight. As a result, the pilot must be able to see the aircraft at all times with his naked eye. The FAA also did not permit the UAS to be operated in an open area at night. The FAA considered the fact that Industrial Skyworks only intends to use the UAS for building inspection at night, and the fact that the aircraft will always be no more than 100 feet from the structure, as providing a necessary means of ensuring that there is adequate separation of the UAS from manned aircraft. The close proximity to the building also gives the operator a reference point to aid him in determining the exact location of the UAS.
While we are assured that Part 107 is coming soon, this exemption will remain very important because Part 107, as proposed, does not permit night operations. As a result, for the foreseeable future, anyone wanting to conduct night operations will either have to receive a similar exemption and be willing to abide by these restrictions, or propose an alternative procedure and convince the FAA that it is safe.