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Kara's Corner

Top Tips for Capturing the 2017 Solar Eclipse with a Drone

August 17, 2017

Astronomy lovers rejoice! As you already know, this coming Monday, the U.S. will experience its first major solar eclipse in 38 years. NASA has published an incredible interactive map illustrating the line of totality with the times the beginning, blackout, and end occur.

Naturally, drone pilots have flocked to forums seeking advice for capturing this once-in-a-generation (for most of us) event from an aerial perspective. While there are some limitations, including the fact that most commercial drones are outfitted with a fixed-width, wide angle lens that reduces the sun or moon to a tiny dot, it’s still worth exploring how to creatively leverage the effects of the eclipse for some unique footage.

Getting the settings right on your drone’s camera is only a fraction of the process. If you’re going to successfully document the eclipse, you’ll need the right gear for your journey. What you can expect, if you’re travelling to a destination on the path of totality, is massive crowds, unpredictable weather, poor cell phone reception, and a potential shortage of every basic supply including gas for your car.

I’ve traveled quite a bit to rural locations in varying weather conditions with my drone. Even if you don’t plan on making the trek ahead of this Monday, you’ll find some useful tips outside of the gear I recommend specifically for the eclipse. I’ll also discuss what I hope to capture should the weather cooperate.

NASA Totality Solar Eclipse Map

NASA has leveraged Google Maps’ technology to build an interactive guide to the path of totality. (Screenshot/https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/)

It’s all about the optics

First, and foremost, you’re going to need a good pair of solar eclipse glasses. I say good because of the seemingly endless options available, roughly a handful of manufacturers meet the proper ISO 12312-2 safety standard. Staring directly at the sun, even for even a few seconds, will burn your retinas and cause permanent damage. A quality pair of glasses may look goofy, and cost more than expected, but they’ll also reduce the sun’s brightness by a factor of 500,000. They block out about 100,000 times more light than typical sunglasses offering 100% UAV protection. So, seriously, get the 3D looking version and protect your vision.

If you happen to be on the West Coast where the sun isn’t directly overhead, you could attempt to make the totality the central focus of your composition. As mentioned earlier, most commercial drones are equipped with cameras boasting fixed width, wide-angle lenses. My friend, Belinda Kilby, isn’t planning any documentation with a drone but she recommends an Alta and Movi combo that can carry a camera with a large lens. However, just as exposure to the sun can cause retina damage, the same effect will occur with the sensor inside a lens. Researching and purchasing the proper solar filters for your camera is a definite requirement.

Prepare for the elements

It’s still summer. Rest assured, it’ll be stifling hot at most locations on the path of totality. Make sure your vehicle has plenty of coolant and the air conditioning is working. Tablets, especially iPads, tend to overheat during flight and placing it in front of your car’s vents can reverse this unfortunate side effect. Bring plenty of water, at least 1 gallon, per person, per day, for drinking and allocate some more if you plan on showering and cooking.

Sunscreen is always a must. However, most drone pilots I know take it a step further and either wear protective gear like this or bandanas over their nose and mouth for guaranteed sun protection. If it’s cold or rainy, which it very well could be in the Midwest, The Transmitter is helpful. I personally do not recommend flying in precipitation, since water damage can cause long-term damage to your drone, but I realize some people may take the risk for an event of this magnitude.

Make sure you have a tent or tarp for shelter. When your typical Motel 6 is suddenly going for $400 a night around the path of totality, you know lodging will be in non-existent supply. Traffic jams may add an extra day onto your trip. Gas stations in surrounding areas could potentially be drained of fuel so when travelling, make sure you never let the gauge fall below the half-tank mark. This rule also applies for travelling to any rural area.

Map it out and keep communication open

It goes without saying that you should be checking AirMap, SkyVector, and local ordinances before finalizing your destination for take-off. Since you can’t fly over crowds, having two or three back up locations in place is wise. Make sure they’re on public land. Since there’ll be massive amounts of people in attendance, cellular towers are going to be overwhelmed. Outside magazine put together a handy guide for building an offline map. You may also want to pick up an analog copy of a Rand McNally guide if you’re feeling adventurous.

To keep communication channels open with friends and fellow travelers, a simple set of walkie talkies or two-way radios (the latter requires an FCC license) are a reliable bet. If you stick to phones, having a back up battery pack will combat rapid draining.

Final thoughts

Since I’ll be in or around Carbondale, Illinois, I plan on capturing the line of totality’s shadow across the land. Right now, the weather forecast is cloudy. I’m hoping it clears up. We’ll see. Either way, I’ll follow up with a post about my experience and share some of the other awesome drone work I encounter online.

What supplies are you planning on bringing this Monday or for a future trip? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

Featured image: Kurt Kulac licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic


Kara Murphy is a Part 107-certified remote pilot and writer based in Midwest.Follow her on Instagram for her more artistic aerial imagery, find out how to hire her here.

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