It’s been almost three weeks since December 20th when the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) in Colorado first posted on their Facebook page that they had received reports from concerned citizens about mysterious drones flying overhead. A subsequent post that appeared on that site a few days later seemed to confirm the reports as it was stated that deputies from Phillips and neighboring Yuma County had spent an evening tracking 16 drones flying over the area. The PCSO post also stated that, while it was not known who was operating the drones or why, nothing indicated the individual(s) involved had malicious intent.
Within just a few days, the story was picked up by the media with coverage ultimately appearing in multiple national and international news outlets. Meanwhile, there continued to be no information regarding who was behind the operation as 15 different agencies allegedly denied any knowledge of, or association with, the drones.
None of this was “breaking news” to locals, for it was all taking place in the skies over the eastern plains of Colorado, including Kiowa County.
To briefly recap, roughly a week before Christmas, residents in the far northeastern corner of Colorado reported seeing “clusters” of drones—referred to by the FAA as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS--flying overhead. Accounts varied in how many drones were spotted as people reported seeing anywhere from 2 or 3 to as many as 30. Some eyewitnesses stated the drones were flying in “grid” formation; several individuals, including one first-hand witness from Yuma County interviewed in the January 1st edition of the Independent, stated the drones had fixed wings with a wing span of about 6’. And, in one of the more concerning aspects of the story, the drones were only appearing at night during the hours of around 6pm to 10pm.
Aside from one unconfirmed comment on social media of two black SUVs driving at a high rate of speed down one of the county roads in Yuma County, there have been no reports of a notable increase of either strangers or vehicles in the rural communities on the plains.
Some drones are detectable on radar, but most are not. Fixed wing drones have a very low profile and would have to fly very close to a dish in order to be picked up on radar. With the FAA having no knowledge of who was flying the uas and both the public and media left to speculate about what was going on, social media soon lit up with videos taken from cell phones and posts proposing an array of wild conspiracy theories, especially as the drones continued to appear night after night and the locations where they were spotted expanded to include counties further and further south in Colorado. Some of those theories genuinely strained credulity, and none of them could be confirmed. Even a few respected, seasoned reporters--possibly frustrated at the mystery continuing to go unsolved--took stabs at possible explanations for the event. But, to date, those explanations are no more than mere speculations.
Last weekend, a possible explanation surfaced when a military reporter with The Colorado Springs Gazette posted an article suggesting the drones were part of “secretive anti-drone exercises being conducted by the Air Force” by the Air Force Global Strike Command based out of Wyoming”. However, in addition to misstating where the Global Strike Command is located (it’s in Louisiana, not Wyoming), the article relies on the statement that missile silos are located throughout Colorado’s eastern plains. Actually, the Minuteman missile silos referenced by the write are only located in a relatively small area northwest of Highway 76 in a part of northeastern Colorado where no drone sightings have been reported at this time.
Meanwhile, as experts weigh in, there continue to be no clearly defined parameters to what is going on.
At this point, drones have been spotted almost every night since December 20th with sightings in a total of at least 18 towns spread out over 7 counties in eastern Colorado and at least one county in Nebraska. Recently, several news outlets have reported that additional sightings have occurred in parts of Kansas and Wyoming, as well.
With no second or third party data available to independently back up the sightings, the public must rely on first-hand eyewitness accounts as they are reported in the media. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that anyone who has reported seeing a drone did so falsely. To the contrary, many of those who reported were both reluctant to do so but thorough in their descriptions. Nonetheless, there may be reason to wonder if at least some of those reports might have been made in error.
Vic Moss has largely been the go-to UAS expert mainstream media has reached out to for comment on the eastern plains drone event. Co-owner of Drone U, Moss is a nationally recognized voice for drone safety and reasonable drone regulation, administrator for one of the largest commercial Unmanned Aircraft System Pilot forums and has worked closely with the FAA on a number of issues related to unmanned aircraft systems. When asked about the numerous reports of drones in the night sky, he states that reporting errors are not uncommon. "People are constantly mistaking aircraft for drones when they’re flying at night,” he says. “Planets and satellites make that list, too. The vast majority of sightings are one of those three things.”
Moss, who is based in Lakewood, has not witnessed first-hand any of the drones in the area but has reviewed videos taken by eyewitnesses and posted on social media. Unfortunately, the videos he reviewed were either “too blurry” to help in identification or showed only a single drone, which is not an unusual sight in Colorado skies. Of those videos that showed single drones, none of them appeared to be fixed wing but were, instead, the more commonly recognized rotary operated drones available for consumer purchase at any number of stores and online.
Nonetheless, Moss, who has been a professional drone operator and photographer since 2015 and willingly describes himself as “skeptical”, does not dismiss out of hand the validity of eyewitness accounts out of hand. Many of the reports include details that fit the description of fixed wing UAS, such as being relatively silent except for the “whirring” sound of the propeller and the length of time the drones are able to stay in the air.
Also, last week, several witnesses in Lincoln County reported one drone hovering over I-70 for about an hour while two groups of between 13 and 15 drones were flying not far away. That description appears to fit with what Moss describes as a drone being “tethered”. “Tethered flights are extremely limited in travel distance…and can only move up or down with very little lateral movement,” he says. “But they are very uncommon in the commercial world…and are usually restricted to overwatch missions, like VIP travel or large sporting events.” An overwatch is defined as a military “force protection” tactic where one small unit or vehicle supports another while it is exercising movement tactics.
Intriguing, and, yes, frustrating, as this phenomenon has become, FAA regulations governing the operation of unmanned small aircraft may provide at least some clues about the classification of the drone operators and what procedures they had to follow in order to do what they’re doing.
Drones are neither new nor unique to Colorado skies, and the community of pilots in the state is significantly large. As of January 1, 2020, there are 5,360 commercial remote pilots in Colorado and an estimated eight times that number of recreational flyers, also known as hobbyists.
Some distinct differences exist between the regulations governing commercial drone pilots and those governing hobbyists, some of which could be relevant to current events.
Hobbyists are defined as those drone pilots who fly strictly for recreational purposes. (People who got their first drone this Christmas would typically fall in this category.) There is no official competency test to be a hobbyist; an individual simply needs to register their drone with the FAA and post that registration on the side of the aircraft.
Hobbyists are allowed to fly at night and, despite consumer drones being capable of being as far as 5km to 7km from the operator, hobbyists are required to keep their drone within their visual line of sight, which is typically around 1500’. They are not allowed to operate more than one unmanned aircraft at a time. Their small unmanned aircraft must remain, at all times, close enough to the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the controls of the aircraft for those people to be able to see the aircraft without corrective lenses. They cannot operate the drone from a moving vehicle or aircraft, like a single engine plane. Unless prior authorization is received from the FAA, they can only fly at or below 400 feet above ground in uncontrolled air space and are prohibited from flying in controlled airspace, which is typically the air around and above many airports.
Becoming an FAA “Certificated Remote Pilot” or Commercial Operator is a more rigorous process. In order to receive this level of certification, an individual must be at least 16 years old, able to speak and write English and in good mental and physical condition. He or she must also study for and pass a “Knowledge Test” that is only administered at an FAA approved testing site, and certification must be renewed every three years.
While commercial operators are governed by the same regulations as hobbyists, they can also apply for waivers from the FAA for certain regulations, some of which could feasibly apply to the individuals flying the drones over eastern Colorado.
With a waiver, commercial pilots can fly at night, provided they have the right navigating lights.
And, with a waiver, commercial remote pilots may also operate a lot more than one drone at a time. “Depending on how the waiver is worded,” Moss explains, “a commercial remote pilot could fly hundreds of drones at one time.” He cites drone light shows as an example, stating such shows usually involve hundreds and hundreds of drones. As he describes it, Ehang flew over 1300 in one show last year. “But that was in China,” he says.
The technology required for one commercial operator to fly that number of drones is also more extensive. “The drones flying in northeast Colorado and other places are probably using both GPS and computer programs to fly,” he says, adding, “It’s highly unlikely they are individually flown.”
Again, based on the wording of the waiver, commercial remote pilots are also not restricted to the visual line of sight three mile limit that restrict hobbyists. When asked what is the greatest distance a commercial pilot can be located from the drones he or she is flying, Moss states that consumer drones—that is, the drones built for the general public—will be able to operate at a distance of 5 to 7 kilometers or have a distance of five to seven kilometers or 3 to 4.5 miles. “More sophisticated drones are virtually limitless,” Moss states. “[Department of Defense] drones fly across the world. Some are launched from bases and ships in the Middle East but are flown by pilots who are located at stateside bases.”
While this information may not answer the question everyone is asking (Who are the guys who are doing this and why are they flying all over the skies around here?) these facts could at least provide a modicum of clarity about the operation that is filling our night skies with drones.
At the risk of adding more speculation to fuel an already growing fire of theories, it seems reasonable to suggest that this is an advanced commercial operation. Based on the description of numerous drones flying in specific patterns, it would seem that there are highly experienced remote pilots operating the aircraft. Reports of relatively large numbers of fixed wing aircraft in the air at the same time suggests this is a somewhat large, and consequently, expensive operation to conduct. And the absence of any notable increase in the presence of “strange” vehicles, on county roads that are not well traveled, or in towns, where just about everybody knows everybody else, would tend to suggest that the drones are being flown by commercial pilots who are not in the immediate vicinity.
And that still leads us with the question “Who are these guys?”
Given that applications for waivers must include a description of the operation and the reason a request is being made to waive certain regulations and the FAA makes a decision on the waiver typically within around 90 days, it also seems reasonable to conclude that, if the operation is run by a private company, the “who” and the “why” are residing somewhere on a waiver application in FAA files.
However, if the operation is being conducted by the Department of Defense, the answer may not be so available. According to various individuals with a knowledge of such practices, the DOD typically conducts flight operations on what has been described as a “handshake” agreement: although there is no official policy in place, it is not an uncommon practice for the DOD to promise to fly according to FAA regulations, and, should a DOD pilot do something that is not in compliance with FAA regs, the pilot’s branch of service will take whatever disciplinary or corrective action as they see fit. In a state with such a strong Air Force presence, the evolution of such a practice hardly comes as a surprise. That also would leave it up to the DOD to explain what’s going on—if they’re involved and if they’re willing to do so. And neither one of those are guaranteed.
With all of that said, perhaps the theory posted by the writer from The Gazette deserves a second glance. Unusual flight patterns involving multiple drones could feasibly be part of an exercise where software was being tested for its efficacy in detecting drones. Conducting those practices in the general vicinity of concentrated locations of missile silos would provide an opportunity for real life applications. Tethered drones positioned to directly observe drone movements could provide valuable data.
And yes, that is clearly more speculation.
Vic Moss is not a fan of speculation. “There are enough reports out that in this instance that it’s quite possible something is going on. I’d even say probable,” he states. “I’m leaning more towards drones, but I still have no doubt there is no ill intent. Someone flying drones of this nature with lights on them are not doing something bad. If there was just one single good video that showed the patterns and shapes people are seeing, I’d be all in.”
It’s hoped that, before long, the public will get some kind of answer. Senator Gardner made a statement last week that “boots were on the ground in Colorado” with both the FAA and the Colorado Department of Homeland Security now conducting an investigation, and the FAA issued a press release Monday afternoon describing who they’re working with, who they’ve contacted about the drones and there’s no information to report at this time. (See press release in full, below.) Given the level of interest, it’s likely that neither the public nor the media will let go of this story anytime soon.
In the meantime, locals are strongly encouraged (as in really strongly) to not attempt to take matters in their own hands and do anything to forcibly bring a drone to the ground. The only information that will glean is a registration number; nothing else will be immediately obvious. More importantly, five will get you ten that the knock on the subsequent knock on the door will not be an irate grandmother ticked off that 10 year old grandson Norman just had his shiny new Christmas present shot down but, instead, will be some guy in a freshly pressed uniform with a less than pleasant demeanor demanding to know who exactly just shot the bird, so to speak.
Better to just sit back, watch the light show overhead, marvel at “man’s” latest inventions and think about how you’re going to tell the story one day of “those mysterious weeks in ’19 and ’20 when it looked like the eastern plains were being invaded from above”. That story will definitely be one for the books.