Part 107 Updates
The FAA started the sUAS Part 107 program in June 2016. The program has been extremely popular, with 223,634 remote pilots certified and over 367,848 registered commercial drones in the United States as of April 19, 2021. As the FAA gets their hands around the concept of a national airspace flooded with drones, they continue to update the rules and regulations that govern how we fly our UAVs.
Near the end of 2020, the FAA announced their latest update to these rules. Some of the changes, such as remote ID, were met with some skepticism, but others were more welcomed. Changes favored by most pilots include an updated recurrent test format, operations over people, and updates to the night rule.
FAA publications are often wordy and a relatively dry read. To save you the trouble of reading it for yourself, I'd like to give you the main takeaways you should know. Additionally, I took the new recurrent test online a week ago. I'll let you know what to expect during the course and talk about the structure of the exam. This should help prepare you for when it is time for you to retest. Let's start by going over the changes to operations over people.
Operations Over People
When the Part 107 program first started, pilots were not allowed to fly directly over people. Specifically, the FAA said you could not fly over anyone that wasn't explicitly involved in the UAV operation or at least under a covered structure or vehicle that offered protection from a falling drone. The ruling limited flying in many situations, especially in populated areas. Pilots and organizations could apply for a waiver, but it wasn't the most straightforward or transparent process in the beginning.
The new ruling makes flying over people easier and does not require a waiver (Part 107.39). Drones are divided into four categories that dictate the circumstance that would allow each UAV to operate according to the new rules. I'll paraphrase what each category is.
The new rules for operations over people are different for each of the four categories. If your drone meets the definition of a given category listed above and follows what is listed below for that category, you can fly over people without a waiver.
The new rules for night operations are a little easier to follow than those established for operations over people. To fly your drone at night, you need training and a little extra equipment.
The updated initial test for the Part 107 and the new recurrent test covers the information you need. If you have already taken your initial test but are not due to take your recurrent test for a while, you might consider taking it sooner so you can fly at night. Flying at night opens a world of projects to you, from real estate photography to thermal inspections.
Once you pass the updated recurrent test, you will be able to legally fly at night without a waiver. If you are a Part 107 Operator prior to April 6th, and you have not taken the updated recurrent training on the FAA’s website and you’re interested in flying at night, you will need to obtain a waiver. My advice is to just go online and pass the recurrent exam so that you’re legally able to fly.
The training in the updated initial test and recurrent test, centers around the physiological effects of darkness on the eye. You learn how to compensate for nighttime conditions and how to avoid low light conditions affecting your ability to fly safely.
According to the updated rules, the second thing you must do is equip your drone with anti-collision lights that can be seen from 3 statute miles away and flash at a rate sufficient enough to avoid collisions. The lights must be in operation during the entire time you are flying. Lume Cube is one of the major manufacturers of these lights. A set of lights and mounts will run you just under $200.
So, as long as you have the training and the lights, you can fly at night without a waiver. It is now much easier to fly at night. I had a night waiver before the rule change, and, in my opinion, I'd rather fly under the new ruling than do all the paperwork of a waiver again
Flying At Night: Dark Adaptation & White Lights
As we know, starting April 21st, 2021 to fly your drone at night you no longer need to apply for a Daylight Operations Waiver. Flying at night, however, presents some new challenges that you’ll need to be familiar with to ensure a safe operation.
The Part 107 Exam and Recurrent Exam will test your understanding of Dark Adaptation, and White Lights, how your eyes function at night, and visual illusions that may play tricks on your eyes during an operation. All of these topics will be necessary steps to preparing for a night mission.
The first concept you’ll need to understand is Dark Adaptation and White Lights. It takes approximately 30 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to darkness. Not only that, the process will completely start over if for some reason you are exposed to a super bright light during your 30 minute adaptation period.
Let’s say you’re preparing for your night operation with your crew, and as you assemble your gear and establish your takeoff and landing locations you pull out your flashlight to check something in more detail. Instead of using a bright white light like a flashlight that may restart your adaptation period, you can actually use an alternative light red light. I’ve seen drone pilots use red lights to fully illuminate their operation and it is less harmful to your eyes than white light.
If you are typically sensitive to light, consider using blue light glasses as well. I use filtered blue light glasses to assist in the process of dark adaptation and they help when I’m scanning the sky during a night operation by using that same technique that we discussed in an earlier chapter - split the sky up into thirds, and scan from left to right (2-3 seconds in each section) using your nd filtered glasses to aid your eyes. Not only do I use those blue light glasses during flights, they’re also super helpful when you’re staring at a computer screen too long especially at night.
So blue light glasses, dark adaptation lenses, or nd filters - whatever you want to call them, they all help in the process of helping your eyes adjust to the dark.
Night Operations: Natural, and Self Imposed Stressors
Sometimes it can be exhausting (as a drone pilot), driving around town all day shooting projects before your night flight. To understand what’s going on in your body that causes this stress, the FAA wants you to be familiar with what are called self-imposed stressors.
There are tons of natural stressors that you would typically experience throughout the day that lead to a safe level of stress that you and I would be able to cope with, however, once you start adding “self-imposed” stressors to your load, then it becomes dangerous to operate a mission at night. Let’s discuss a few of these Self Imposed stressors.
Exhaustion: Performance is directly dependent on your ability to plan and react. If you’re exhausted or fatigued while flying a mission, it won’t allow you to be mentally alert and chances are you’re going to respond more slowly to a situation requiring immediate action. Those who experience exhaustion don’t typically realize it, and their performance becomes a safety hazard for everyone else involved in the operation. If you’re fatigued or exhausted during flight, you tend to only focus on one thing at a time, and when that comes to something like the scanning techniques we just reviewed, it may affect your ability to multitask.
Tobacco or Smoking: These “self-imposed” stressors are very important to understand, because not only are you doing it to yourself, but it actually decreases your visual sensitivity at night without you knowing.
It significantly increases the amount of carbon dioxide in your red blood cells and reduces the amount of oxygen that can be carried in those same red blood cells. Those red blood cells are in circulation to your brain, so essentially you’re reducing the amount of oxygen that gets to your brain. If you do this enough it will lead to something called Hypoxia, which is a dangerous condition that happens when your body does not get enough oxygen. Now you may be wondering, how does Hypoxia affect my ability to operate a drone safely at night? Well, it affects peripheral vision and dark adaptation. Loss of peripheral vision decreases your ability to detect objects in your drone's flight path which is extremely dangerous.
Let’s take a look at the next Self-Imposed Stressors on our list…
Hypoglycemia: I’m sure we’ve all experienced this one. It’s when you miss or postpone meals throughout the day leading to low blood sugar. I’ve had it happen to me countless times after a workout when I forget to eat or even just working long days and postponing meals. In the end, it’s not in your benefit because it lowers your motivation and your drive to complete something, and it ultimately decreases your attention span which wouldn’t be good if you were operating a drone. Low blood sugar impairs your vision at night which leads to dangerous night flight performance. The other factor that impairs your ability to see clearly at night is insufficient consumption of Vitamin A. Visual Illusions
The best way to ensure a safe flight for you, your team, and your client is to visit the site during the day to do most of your preliminary planning work. Besides these self-imposed stressors, there are a few visual illusions that you’ll need to be familiar with when flying at night. Let’s take a look at the various illusions that can play tricks on your brain at night…
Autokinesis: Gives you the impression that a stationary object is moving. It’s caused by staring at a fixed single point of light in total darkness, with nothing behind the object to use as a reference in the background.
Fixation: This one is a common mistake for beginner pilots. Fixation is typically used as a term of reference for manned aircraft pilots that are just beginning to use different instruments. Imagine you’re driving at night, and someone JUST showed you how to use an odometer. Most people get fixated on the odometer trying to monitor their speed (within a few miles per hour) and forget to watch the road. After staring at the odometer for so long when you finally look back up at the road you can get disoriented.
Reversible Perspective Illusion: When you don’t know if an object is moving towards you, or away from you. If the intensity of light is increasing, it’s heading towards you. If you think about a car's headlights coming at you, the intensity of light coming at you increases as the car gets closer.
That being said, if you’re not able to determine which way a manned aircraft is flying here are a few tips to keep in mind. On the left side of an airplane, you’re going to have a red light on the end of the left-wing. On the right side of an airplane, you’re going to have a green light at the end of the right wing, and at the back of the aircraft, you will have a white light. This will allow you to always determine the direction an aircraft is facing.
Size / Distance Illusion: Dimly lit objects appear to be further away and brightly lit objects appear closer. Sometimes you’ll see a bright light and your brain will determine that the object is approaching you since the intensity of the light is high, however, there are some scenarios where the object is in fact not moving at all. It could just be a house at the top of a hill with extremely bright lights, and your brain perceives that object as moving when in fact it’s not. So that's something to be aware of as well.
Flicker Vertigo: A light that is flickering at a rate between 4 and 20 cycles per second can lead to vomiting or nausea. The best way to combat this is to constantly be moving your eyes while scanning the sky. Use proper scanning techniques, and what that means is that you should not be fixating on one light source for too long. Continue to move your eyes using the ⅓ scanning technique and avoid staring at any bright light sources for too long, especially if it is flickering.
Night Operations: Rods and Cones
Let’s talk about how your eyes work, and more specifically let’s dive into how your eyes work at night! As you start to understand how your eyes work, you can begin to develop some techniques for yourself that will allow you to perform better in low light scenarios and avoid having to deal with common problems caused by bright lights, not enough light, or visual illusions.
Our eyes are capable of perceiving an insane amount of detail, which allows us to see objects both near and far. In addition to the clarity of objects, there are two different receptors that will help you see better in low light and they’re called rods and cones. To understand this better, let’s dive into how your eyes work. Light enters through the cornea at the front of your eye and then continues until it hits the retina which is responsible for housing rods and cones. These are light-sensitive cells that receive signals, or images in which they process what you’re seeing and then send that information to the brain.
Let’s talk about Rods first. So rods help with your peripheral vision, and they help you see better at night. It usually takes the rods about 30 minutes to fully adjust to the absence of light. In addition to helping you see at night, rods are much better than cones at detecting movement - and this movement is typically in your peripheral vision because that’s where the rods are located! Have you ever noticed that at night you can look down at the floor and see movement better than looking straightforward and trying to see movement? Rods in action. Let’s talk about cones.
Cones work best in bright light, and they allow you to see color. If you think about the rods that we just previously discussed, it makes sense that these cones typically detect color better - because at night there would be no reason for your rods to detect lots of color in your peripheral field of vision. That’s why at night you’re unable to differentiate color in dim light conditions.
So back to cones, they work best during the day, in bright lights and they allow you to see color. If you think about what a (street) cone looks like, it starts small and then expands straight forward - in your central field of vision. That’s exactly how your eye sees and they’re responsible for forward-facing vision, as opposed to rods that detect peripheral movement. Next time you turn the lights out in your living room, thank your rods for working to detect objects.
If you are a newer commercial drone pilot and have yet to take a recurrent test, you will be pleased with the recent ruling. As of April 6, 2021, the training and exam are online and free. The class is well put together, and it is near impossible not to pass the test.
As you probably know, the sUAS license is valid for 24 months. Before the two-year period ends, you need to pass a recurrent test if you want to keep flying for more than personal enjoyment. I took the test on April 8, 2021. Here is what you need to do to take the exam yourself and a bit of what to expect.
Before taking the recurrent exam, you will need to take an online course called Part 107 sUAS Recurrent – Non-61 Pilots. The course is located on the FAASTeam website (https://www.faasafety.gov/Default.aspx). If you do not already have an account set up on the FAA Safety Team site, you will need to create one before taking the class. The account is free, and so is the course.
Once you have logged in, click on the tab called Activities, Courses, Seminars & Webinars. From here, you can search for the class and enroll in it.
The online training covers several knowledge areas of 14 CFR Part 107. The material includes the addition of information on flying at night. Here is a list of the knowledge areas covered during the class.
In each of the course sections, you will see a video and several slides covering the material. There are a few single-question quizzes in some sections. If you choose the correct answer, you'll see why that answer is correct. If you choose the wrong answer, you can go back a slide and try again. Once you have completed all sections, you can close out of the course and select the exam button.
The exam consists of 45 multiple-choice questions. For reference, each question notes the source for the answer within 14 CFR Part 107. If you happen to have difficulty with any particular question, you can use the referenced section to find the correct response.
If you have taken the recurrent test before, you'll probably think the new test is pretty easy. There are no questions that ask you to read sectionals or supplementals. You must get a 100% on the exam to pass. It sounds like the pressure would be on, but if you take the test and do not get 100%, you just need to correct the incorrect response and resubmit your answers. After you score a 100% on the exam, you will be given your certificate extending your certification by another 24 months.
Recurrent Training Registration Steps
You’ll print out a certificate at the end of the training that you must have with you when flying. If you just passed the initial exam a few months ago, and you want to take the certification prior to the 24 months in order to fly at night (let’s say) you can take the online training and your new recurrent certificate will be avoid for 24 months from that time.
The new changes to operations over people, flying at night, and the recurrent test are improvements. It is a sign that the FAA is getting more comfortable with drones and commercial drone pilots. Hopefully, as time goes by, we will continue to see more freedoms like flying beyond visual line of sight. Enjoy the new privileges presenting by the changes and always fly responsibly and safely.
With the FAA Rules and regulations being relatively new, we’re starting to see lots of updates and changes as things become more finalized in the process. By 2023 we’ll expect to see drones flying with a digital license plate, which will include the use of something like ADS-B. It’s automatic, and periodically transmits information, and extremely dependent due to the information being derived from GPS which can detect position and velocity unlike other forms of radar broadcasting. Air Traffic Control can use this information for surveillance purposes to keep the national airspace safe and understand the 3-dimensional position of aircraft as they move. This is all built on satellite signals to track aircraft movement instead of other non-dependable sources like radar.
There are two versions of ADS-B: ADS-B OUT and ADS-B IN.
Essentially, ADS-B OUT is the automatic broadcast of an aircraft's GPS location without a pilot or operator's involvement. This allows Air Traffic Controllers with ADS-B ground stations to immediately receive information like an unmanned /manned aircraft's location, altitude, ground speed as quickly as every second.
On the other hand, we have ADS-B IN, which is a digital display in an aircraft's cockpit. It equips pilots with information like weather and traffic position.