Next week, on August 21, a total solar eclipse (or the alignment of the sun, moon and earth), visible from the continental U.S., will take place for the first time in 38 years. The last time this cosmic event occurred, there were no battery-powered supercomputers—smartphones—in your hand to fly a self-stabilizing, GPS-guided aircraft with a camera and a broad spectrum wireless control system. Now, in 2017, flying a drone to capture this phenomenon will certainly be a common activity for both commercial and hobbyist drone operators.
But what if you (or your company) wants to be the absolute first to get footage of the shadow? Well, the first land-based point of contact with the path of totality (the shadow of the moon on the earth) will be at Lincoln Beach, Oregon at about 9:05 a.m. PT. But Lincoln Beach suffers some visibility problems as a coastal area, and if you don’t want to roll the dice, or better yet, you are flying commercially and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 rules require a minimum of three miles of visibility (and you don’t have a waiver), you should have some other options. Over the 90-minute span of this solar eclipse, the path of totality will run through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The total eclipse ends around 2:48 p.m. ET in Charleston, South Carolina.
Of course, you also have to remember that many of these states in the path of totality (or counties within these states) have their own drone regulations beyond that of the FAA. For example, Oregon requires any commercial aircraft to register before operating in Oregon; Idaho Falls, Idaho is almost all Class E airspace to the ground which means limited ability to fly without a waiver; Lincoln, Nebraska has a “responsible operator” law with a $100 fine for violations; Kansas prohibits harassing someone while using a drone (and if your filming of the eclipse is considered harassment you could have a problem); Tennessee has a few broad laws against certain drone operations like prohibitions from taking pictures or video without the consent of the individual who owns or lawfully occupies the real property in the image, and Nashville, Tennessee has a lot of no-fly zones; and North Carolina requires a permit from the North Carolina Department of Transportation –which requires passing another knowledge test in addition to the Part 107 FAA required remote pilot certification test.
And then there’s Wyoming, Montana, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, and South Carolina which do not have any specific prohibitions related to drone operations (local ordinances however may be in the mix but not widely known).
So while there are certainly many options for commercial and hobbyist drone operators across the country to capture this spectacular sight, it is important to remember that there are still some hurdles with state and local laws and ordinances, as well as FAA operational guidelines (like issues with “flying at night” even if it is high noon). And as always, it’s a solar eclipse, which means even one direct glimpse with the naked eye could leave you visually impaired or blind so be sure to check out NASA’s resources on eclipse safety before taking your drones (or your eyes) to the sky.