It all started on December 23 when the Denver Post reported on “a band of large drones” flying over Phillips and Yuma counties in northeast Colorado. Phillips County Sheriff Thomas Elliott, as relayed by the Denver Post, provided an eerie description of the drone activity: “The drones stay about 200 feet to 300 feet in the air and fly steadily in squares of about 25 miles, he said. There are at least 17 drones; they emerge each night around 7 p.m. and disappear around 10 p.m.”
Nobody interviewed by news reporters, including local authorities, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the Air Force said they knew what was going on.
Taken at face value, this sounds like a peculiar installment in the annals of drone sightings. But drone enthusiasts are not taking it at face value.
Loretta Alkalay, a former FAA lawyer who now works as an aviation attorney and is a drone enthusiast herself told Motherboard these media reports “seem to harken back to the ‘old’ days when there was so much media sensationalism and scaremongering with any drone sighting.”
Indeed, in the weeks since, we’ve learned....nothing else. After more sightings, reports, and failed attempts to record or photograph the drones, the Colorado Department of Public Safety flew an airplane over the area in question capable of detecting heat signatures below. After an almost five hour flight, they found nothing. The Colorado Springs Gazette thought they had solved it when they found out the Air Force has a base in Cheyenne that conducts drone operations, but a few days later the Air Force said it’s not them, either.
To say this has caused quite the kerfuffle would be an understatement. After more than 70 local, state, federal, and military officials met in Brush, Colorado (population: 5,384), a joint drone task force consisting of “ten to fifteen” separate agencies was put together to solve the mystery.
This enduring conundrum has attracted its fair share of national media attention. While that media attention hasn’t gotten to the bottom of the case, it has spurred additional reports of drone sightings further into Nebraska and from as far away as North Carolina and California.
A seemingly minor detail lacking from these reports is that there’s precious little evidence these drones actually exist.
That’s not to say this is some hoax or all the eyewitness accounts are wrong; far be it for me to question their experiences from our offices in Brooklyn. But this lack of evidence has not been lost on drone hobbyists and advocates. They have seen this play before.
Alkalay pointed out there is a long history of the media accepting drone sighting claims without much rigor, only for investigators to later determine that whatever was seen was not a drone at all.
Her point is backed up by a white paper from DJI, a major drone manufacturer, which points out ten such cases with links to both the initial media hysterics and the ensuing fact check from official investigations. Two such cases were:
- In August 2015, a pilot reported striking a drone about 20 miles from O’Hare international airport. The FAA investigated the incident and found that, in fact, he hit and killed a bird.
- Eight months later, in a widely publicized story, a British Airways pilot said he hit a drone near Heathrow Airport. But the UK transport secretary later reported it was not a drone and probably just a plastic bag.
DJI asserts in its report that this is part of a larger trend of pilots falsely reporting pretty much any unidentified object in the sky as a drone. DJI further cites a study by the Academy of Model Aeronautics which analyzed all the records of such sightings as of August 21, 2015 and found only 27 out of 764 reports (3.5 percent) were legitimate near misses. In the years since, we’ve only gotten more evidence that drones are the new UFOs.
This brings us back to the Colorado/Nebraska sightings, which picked up steam once a helicopter pilot reported coming into “dangerous proximity” with a drone, although no further evidence could be provided for this claim. Perhaps this sounds familiar.
“From our perspective, this illustrates why you should take concerns about drones with a real big grain of salt,” DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg told Motherboard about the Colorado reports, “Because who knows what you’re really seeing? Without an independent confirmation or measurement, it’s a lousy way to try and make policy on how drones should be identified.”
In the absence of much hard evidence, some drone enthusiasts have popped over to online forums to express their pet theories, including but not limited to top secret government efforts to locate lost nuclear bombs.
But the most popular theory is that the timing is just a little too coincidental with a recently proposed FAA rule that would require drones to be identified remotely using a unique identifier and GPS coordinates sent via cellular signal to a central database, which many enthusiasts worry will ruin their hobby. What a great way to drum up support for such a policy, these posters suggest, than a nationally covered drone mystery.
This FAA conspiracy is, like most conspiracy theories, less a genuine assertion of the version of events they think actually occurred and more an expression of a larger frustration with the way the world works. Lisberg—who for the record does not believe the FAA is running a secret campaign to fly drones over rural Colorado to scare people in order to pass a remote ID rule for drones—pointed out that the FAA has been working on its rule change for years in consultation with key players in the drone industry. But he did concede the specifics of the FAA’s remote ID rule are not popular in the drone community. For its part, DJI advocates for a different type of remote ID technology than the one the FAA is proposing. Motherboard reached out to the FAA about this particular theory but did not hear back.
If there is a worthy lesson from this whole affair, it is unlikely to be a product of finding out who is actually flying the drones. Instead, it has to do with our attitudes towards the unknown. In this sense, there is some semblance of agreement between the drone enthusiasts and local officials trying their best to navigate this new, strange world.
“The question is do authorities NEED to know what it is?” Sean Wendland, a drone enthusiast in Sacramento, Calif., asked Motherboard over Facebook Messenger. “Is it causing any harm? Has it created danger? Do Americans NEED to know what it is? I would argue no, not at the cost of freedom.”
This is a surprisingly similar takeaway, at least philosophically speaking, as one of the first government officials involved in the mystery, Yuma County Sheriff Todd Combs.
“All I can say is don’t live your life in the fear of the unknown,” Combs wrote in a Facebook post. “Take life as it comes, be proactive on issues when you can and be thankful for the place we call home, Yuma County.”