Drones After Dark - Managing the Risks
“We arrived on set around lunchtime and met with the usual hive of activity that goes with working on a feature film. Not long after we had unloaded our equipment, a production assistant approached us: ‘Are you the drone guys?’ He called, drawing nearer. ‘Cloud 12?’ He asked again. ‘Yes’ I responded, walking over to meet him. After some quick introductions he briefed us: ‘the director has changed his mind about the aerial shots he wants, and thinks shooting the scene at night will add more atmosphere. We want you guys to film at around 10:45pm this evening.’ There was an awkward pause. ‘No one said we’d be flying at night,’ I replied. He raised his eyebrows: ‘It’s not a problem is it?’”
- Graham Tolhurst, Commercial Drone Operator, Cloud 12
Commercial drone operators often have these kind of demands placed on them. Some clients will not think it's unreasonable to request that an operator fly at night on short notice. However, when the parameters of a flight change, so does the risk factor. The best operators are those that can effectively manage risk whilst also meeting the expectations of their client. On this occasion Cloud 12 were able to safely and legally conduct a night flight, and provided some jaw dropping footage in the process. Let’s look at some of the factors that enabled them to achieve this.
“The problem with night flying,” continues Graham “is that there can be hazards that you don’t even know are there. To mitigate the risk we always complete a site assessment in daylight, and no more than 18 hours in advance of take-off.” The team extended the same principle to the pre-flight checks of their aircraft, all preparation that could be conducted in a well-lit environment was done in advance.
To maintain visibility of an aircraft’s position at night operators also fit conspicuity lighting. Graham continues: “the conspicuity lighting meant I was able to keep my eyes on the drone for the whole flight, and knew exactly where it was at all times.” Lighting should be positioned on the air frame in such a way that the pilot will be able to see at least one light, no matter how the aircraft is orientated.
A well-lit take off and landing area is also important. On this occasion the operators used high-wattage lamps to illuminate their landing pad. Graham also commented: “during flight the light from the ground lamps was making it harder for me to see the aircraft, so we found it was good practice to turn them off while airborne. However, should I have needed them to, the ground team were in a position to turn them back on immediately.”
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