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Drones Are Making UFO Sightings Even Less Credible

After a string of YouTube videos showing what could have been a UFO floating over Toronto took hold on social media, the reality is that we’re putting more and more weird flying things in the sky, which makes the sky-watchers even less reliable.
August 1, 2014, 3:11pm

Image via Flickr user 7593675@N04.
By definition, an unidentified flying object is no longer an unidentified flying object once we are able to identify the flying object correctly.

To the 'Spooky' and optimistic, a UFO could be a spaceship coming great distances from some mysterious cosmic place. To others, it could be swamp gas, weather balloons, engineering students dicking around, or various other difficult to understand—but nonetheless drab—physics anomalies. To Sarah Chun, a series of strange lights hovering high in North York leaned toward the cosmic explanation, titling her video "UFO In North York, Toronto. What is this?!? #UFO #Toronto 2014.07.26." and not “Weather balloon in North York, Toronto. How about that!!! #WeatherBalloons #Toronto.”

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“It was a really bright orbital object…glowing!” wrote Chun in the comments. “Stayed in one spot for about 10-15 mins but then started moving towards South/West towards Yonge/Sheppard… then disappeared out of my sight.” As of writing this, the video has over a million hits.

Sarah’s video was not the only account. In a very social mediated way, others in the area began chiming in to openly hypothesis over what the lights could be, though generally leaning towards the supernatural given that #ufo trended on Twitter. It wasn’t unlike an incident earlier in July, when strange noises boomed over an overcasted downtown. Questions about bombs or Godzilla began to spring up over Twitter, when reports of fireworks at the Harbourfront gave a sounder explanation to theg mystery.

Roxanna Maleki, a local musician, posted an account of her encounter, saying she spotted the odd “droplets of sparkles of diamonds” when the fire alarm went off during a movie. “We had no idea what the hell that was,” says Maleki in her video, “it was like a space shuttle, space shuttle? What do you call that? Alien’s plane?” She also states that she has never been a believer, but the incident made her a little uncertain. The situation amplified when a police officer chimed in.

“I've been a police officer for 15 years. Tonight I have a first! My first report of a UFO!! He was serious!” tweeted Const. Craig Brister. After seeing local media hovering around the story, Brister clarified he believes the flying object was just a quadcopter, a drone device being remote-controlled from on top of a building. And it was at this point where the UFO sighting seemed to hit an impasse between two major modern tech trends.

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Twitter and social media explode with speculation whenever there’s a mysterious news event to obsess over. So when strangers in the same community spot what could be Widget the World Watcher popping by, they’ll scroll the feed to share information, find testaments, gag, troll or debunk. A Canadian UFO Report survey suggested there were 1,180 sightings in Canada in 2013, 40 percent in Ontario. When I asked Sue Demeter-St Clair, of PSICAN why this one caused such a stir, she told me “the fact that there were dozens of witnesses, videos and images, and police statements is why I believe this one garnered so much attention as compared to others.”

As much as social media can inflate a UFO sighting, it can now be deflated just as easily, not by ready internet contrarians, but by drones. We’ve become familiar with drones as faraway conflict killing machines, but they’ve also begun infiltrating the world in unintimidating, much dumber ways. Gimmicky or practical, we’ll be seeing more and more of these whirring air bots in our cities as time goes on.

It’s not a stretch to say that some university engineering departments can’t wait to give drones a joy-ride after the sun sets. And given their unconventional, dramatic, alien-like appearance, it’s even less of a stretch to say that other people could start mistaking them for flying saucers. Most UFO sightings have always suffered a less fantastical explanation, and when drones become more normalized it will make those who tout their encounters feel like the boy who cried wolf.

While it wasn’t an official police statement, Brister is already banking on drones. Sue isn’t convinced by that explanation, though that doesn’t mean she believes the Empress Walk plaza in North York was visited by greys. “The police do not investigate UFO reports so this is more speculation than an actual explanation,” says Demeter-St Clair. “In my opinion the best guess so far is that the string of lights was possibly a kite with LEDs. Quadcopters according to some of the sources we consulted wouldn't have been as stable as reported for such a long period of time. At this time I am still following up with witnesses and hope to hear from others.”

Admittedly, and especially in Roxanna’s account, it does sound like North York was greeted by a tricked out kite over an extraterrestrial. The way lights hung in a row, upward. As still as they were, until the area starts encountering odd men in black suits, it’s safe to say someone’s weird after-dark recreation was the cause.

When I asked Demeter-St Clair if she felt UFO sightings are endangered by drones, she explained: “It would depend on whether or not the described event would fit the quadcopter or RC drone explanation. I witnessed one recently here in Ontario in June at the Battle of Stoney Creek, and while it certainly startled people at first, the crowd quickly figured out exactly what it was, and no UFO reports were made.”

While, in person, it may be easy to separate the human-made flying saucers from the intergalactic ones, fuzzy iPhone videos will be diligently more scrutinized. It’s always been the case, but the future of UFO spectators may become an even steeper uphill battle for the public’s faith as even hovering discs become commonplace. But, if it was an alien, then my heart goes out to it, because it’s going to get an earful from downtown Torontonians on how it missed the “good stuff” by just hanging around Yonge Street. @zaaackkoootzer