Where can you fly a drone in Hawaii?

For a new drone pilot, learning the rules can be a bit daunting.

Hawaiʻi is a state that is incredibly attractive to a drone pilot. The scenery, from reefs and beaches, to the soaring volcanoes, just begs to be flown over and photographed from the air.

Droning Over the Badlands
Flying a Mavic Air over the badlands of recent Hualālai lava flows
I am determined to fly responsibly, that means going through all of the various rules. The rules are not simple! They are a patchwork of regulations from federal, state, and local authorities. How do you make sense of it all?

Below is the results of my research on the subject. More than a few hours of reading state and federal websites. The process of writing this post was in itself a means of educating myself. Hopefully others will find this useful. If you know of anything I have missed, drop me a line to let me know.

This post is focused on the Island of Hawaii, home for me. But much of what is discussed here applied to all of the islands.

Federal Rules

So who can make rules governing the operation of drones? Notably the FAA makes it very clear that while the land is under the jurisdiction of the local authorities, the air belongs to the FAA. The agency has recently emphasized that federal rule-making, as embodied in 14 C.F.R. part 107, preempts state and local laws on the use of airspace by drones.

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Hector Brushes Past

Hurricane Hector is just brushing past us with the center of the storm well south of the island. At this point the tropical storm watch and warnings have been cancelled. The only real effect on the island is some rain and high surf along the south shore.

Outside the weather is blustery and raining, but that could just be normal Waimea weather. At least it looks and feels a bit like a hurricane.

Hurricane Hector brushing past the islands as seen from GEOS-West on Aug 8th, 2018

Please Define Normal

We are now more than two months into this new eruption from Kilauea. Two months ago the fissures opened in the Leilani Estates subdivision and homes began to burn.

Fissure 8 Lava Fountain
The lava fountain at fissure 8 in Leilani Estates throwing lava hundreds of feet in the air on June 4th, 2018
For two months this slow motion catastrophe has continued. While a major earthquake may be over in minutes, or a hurricane over in a few days, this eruption just goes on. For the folks in lower Puna the lava continues to destroy homes and disrupt lives.

For those of us outside the eruption zone things are not quite as immediate. We read the daily news, peruse images of helicopter overflights each morning, and wonder when it will be over.

The multiple county civil defense status reports and various emergency alerts that pop up on our phones each day provide current information… A bit of the Mamalahoa Highway has collapsed in Volcano Village with a one lane restriction, the road to Kalapana has re-opened, there is no tsunami threat from that last 5.4 magnitude earthquake.

July 7, 2018 Summit Collapse Earthquake
A plot of the July 7, 2018 summit collapse earthquake as recorded by an accelerometer in the Keck Observatory foundation
Every day is punctuated by a magnitude five point something earthquake. These summit collapse events have become very regular. You can guess when they will occur as the frequency of small quakes increase around the caldera.

For the most part these events pass unnoticed by much of the island. The volcano area gets shaken up pretty well, but these fifth magnitude quakes are often not felt very far beyond that.

On the summit of Mauna Kea these daily quakes often do disturb the telescopes at night, bumping the tracking and ruining exposures, but otherwise too weak to cause any damage to the facilities.

Hualālai peeks over a thick layer of volcanic smog, or vog
Hualālai peeks over a thick layer of volcanic smog, or vog
The most significant island wide impact has been the vog, wreathing the island in a sulfurous haze. Sulfur dioxide pours from the active vents, mixes with water in the air and forms a thick brown grey haze.

When the vog is bad you not only see it, you smell the sulfur, it irritates eyes and nasal passages. Fire and brimstone reaches out to touch us all.

While the vog makes for spectacular sunsets, the vog can also be thick enough to curtail outside activity. A day like today, with brisk trade-winds to clear it away, is a welcome relief.

Fissure 8 Lava Fountain
The lava fountain at fissure 8 rising about 250 feet as this Kiluaea eruption continues unabated.
Opportunities to legally witness this eruption are few, authorities have been enforcing the evacuation area increasingly strictly. Legal options are the fly or float to the eruption. Deb and I chose to fly a month ago, a helicopter flight I am sure we will remember for a lifetime.

I have not attempted to go to photograph the lava river, despite a very strong desire to do so. The county and state have repeatedly talked about opening a lava viewing area. while there is a great deal of pressure from the community, so far nothing has materialized.

We are so ready for this eruption to be over.

Given the collapse of the summit caldera and the enormous volume of lava emitted so far, it may be possible that when this is over there will be no further eruption for a while. It may take a while for the volcano to recharge, perhaps a year or two. Will we return to the pattern of intermittent eruptions that was seen through much of the 20th century?

Changes at Halemaʻumʻau

While much of the attention is on the lava flows and burning homes in lower Puna, there have been dramatic events at the summit of Kīlauea. The pit crater of Halemaʻumʻau that has been the subject of untold thousands of tourist photos has become almost unrecognizable.

The plume of volcanic gasses from Halemaʻumaʻu
The plume of volcanic gasses from Halemaʻumaʻu under the stars
Halemaʻumʻau is a pit crater created by the ever changing eruptions of Kīlauea. Half a mile across, this crater sits within the much larger Kīlauea caldera at the summit of the volcano. A nearly circular pit that lies at the center, home to many eruptions across the centuries. This often fiery pit is reputed to be the home of Pele, the goddess of fire and creation in Hawaiian mythology.

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Confusing Islands

I understand that some of our family can be a bit fuzzy on island geography. We have had a few exchanges with family members over the last couple days where we have had to remind them that we live on the other side of the island from the volcano. Yes, we are just fine and in no danger from the new eruption.

Confusing the Hawaiian islands on Fox News
Apparently some who should know better have similar issues with geography.

Like Fox News.

At least our family members understand the difference between Hawaiʻi Island and Oahu. But a national news network? I guess that to many Oahu is Hawaiʻi, rather in the same way that Los Angeles is California. Shall we just ignore 230 miles of Pacific Ocean and a few other islands in the way.

Yes, Deb felt the earthquakes in Waikoloa, but they were not bad. There was not even a broken glass at the house despite a magnitude 6.9 earthquake at the the other end of the island. We are 65 miles and two very large mountains away from the volcano.

I was at work and experienced the earthquakes at the summit. Mag 6.9 is now my personal record for strongest earthquake felt, I really do not need to feel anything larger.

While we are safely away from the new lava flows, there are many who are not. It is hard to describe my emotions when seeing video of a house burning as the lava pushes through. Nicely kept gardens surrounding the house betray the effort and pride of the home owner. You can feel dimly the shattering loss of a home and everything that goes with it.