Update: The drone has been returned to the government. Here's how it happened.
NOAA insists that the shipping error was UPS's fault, not the federal government's. We have reached out to UPS to hear their side of the story. "We did not mail the package to the wrong address—the error occurred on the part of UPS," NOAA spokesperson David Miller told us.
A Redditor got more than he bargained for in the mail today: He was accidentally mailed parts to a $350,000 environment and wildlife monitoring drone owned by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.
David Miller, a spokesperson for NOAA, told me he's not sure how the wings and control panel to a NOAA Puma drone, which the agency uses to measure ocean debris, conduct seabird surveys, and monitor ocean habitats, ended up in the hands of the Redditor, but believes that UPS somehow erred and delivered it to the college student.
"We sent one of our Puma unmanned aircraft systems to Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts. We sent a set of about eight boxes for this one aircraft system, and one was misdelivered by UPS," Miller told me. "We're working with UPS to find it."
According to the Redditor (we've reached out to him to learn his name and hear more about his story), a college student who goes by the username Seventy_Seven, the drone arrived in a plain package delivered by UPS. The box was addressed to him and had apparently been sitting in storage for a while.
"Just called UPS. They told me that it was one of the undelivered packages in their office, and asked if I've ever had an undelivered package. I said no, but he insisted that it was mine, and said that it was up to me if I want to keep it or not," he wrote. "Nothing on the outside of the crate said it was government property. I had ordered a weightlifting bench (which I received) and this came with it. Both boxes has UPS labels with my name and address. Though an odd box, I genuinely thought it was parts for the bench I ordered, since I wasn't expecting a freaking drone."
The package was mailed from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, where NOAA has an operations center. NOAA commonly uses drones (not the Puma) to monitor hurricanes and other weather off the Florida coast. A card in the package says "USA Federal Property Return to: NOAA Aircraft Operations Center."
The drone can fly for about two hours at a time and has a range of roughly 8 miles. Miller says that the drone is set to be flown to monitor the sanctuary's environment.
Miller says that the other seven boxes arrived safely in Massachusetts and that he believes the error was UPS's, not NOAA's.
"I can tell you that it didn't come from us addressed to him," he said.
He said he wasn't sure when the drone was mailed but thinks it must have been in the past few days.
"We're just wanting to get that missing package to the sanctuary to we can start flying the mission," Miller said.