A Big And Bizarre Drone Mystery Is Unfolding In Rural Colorado
Large groups of drones are flying grid pattern routes over the region at night and nobody knows who they belong to or what they’re doing.
The sparse expanses of Northeast Colorado have become ground zero for a bizarre mystery surrounding sightings of nighttime coordinated flights of groups of drones. From roughly 7 pm to 10 pm every night last week, an estimated 17 drones with six-foot spans have flown "grid patterns" over Phillips County and near its border with neighboring Yuma County, according to Phillips County Sheriff Thomas Elliott. The drones operate at a few hundred feet in the air and were brightly lit with strobing colored and white lights, leaving local residents and those driving through the area baffled.
The Denver Post was first to report on the string of strange sightings. Local law enforcement, the FAA, DEA, U.S. Army, and the Air Force have said they have no idea what these aircraft are or who they belong to.
The Denver Post writes:
The sheriff’s office can’t explain where the drones are coming from or who is flying them. The estimated size and number of drones makes it unlikely that they’re being flown by hobbyists, Undersheriff William Myers said.
On Friday, Myers said he watched eight of the large drones flying along the Yuma County border near the intersection of U.S. 385 and County Road 54. At the same time, a single drone hovered about 25 miles away over the town of Paoli — it didn’t move all night, just hovered over the town — and eight more drones flew over Haxtun, about 10 miles down the road from Paoli, Myers said.
“Overhead they were probably doing 30, 40 mph,” he said. “They weren’t racing or flying around with speed.”
One resident who spotted a drone last week gave chase, Elliott said, driving behind it at about 50 mph, but lost the drone when he ran out of gas in Washington County.
The machines fly too high to be heard from the ground but can be seen by their strobing white lights along with red, blue and green lights, Myers said.
“The way Colorado law is written, none of the statutes fit for harassment or trespassing,” Myers said. “Colorado hasn’t gotten on board with identifying the airspace around your property as the actual premises, so we don’t have anything we could charge.”
The FAA does have rules for drones that weigh less than 55 pounds and requires such aircraft to be flown during daylight hours, within sight of the pilot, no higher than 400 feet above the ground, and not over people, among other rules. However, pilots can apply for and receive waivers from the FAA that exempts the pilots from many of those rules.
It’s also not clear whether the drones over Phillips and Yuma counties would be governed by those regulations. A drone the size of the ones spotted over the counties likely would weigh more than 55 pounds, Moss said. That means the drone operator would be flying commercially and would likely need to be a “manned aviator” — an actual pilot, Moss said.
Elliott said Monday that the sheriff’s office has received nine calls about the drones since last week. He said residents no longer need to call to report a simple sighting of the drones.
“We just want to know if one lands, if we can get our hands on it, or if they see someone operating them, that’s what we’re looking for now,” he said. “We know they exist.”
I think people will wonder why there is no video that we know of these sightings. Most amateur video shot of lights in the sky at night has very little value, but regardless, you have to remember that this is happening in very sparsely populated areas after dark. If it was occurring near an urban area, I think the lack of video would be a bit troubling, but in this case, I don't find it to be, especially considering the level of law enforcement knowledge of these events.
People seeing lights in the sky that they don't understand the origin of happens often, but this case seems far more consistent over a short timespan than something that could be easily blown off. Once again, the fact that law enforcement is well aware of it and discussing it as fact is also telling. This all begs the question, what is going on in this remote section of Colorado?
Based strictly on the descriptions conveyed, it sounds like someone or some group is testing a broad-area surveillance capability with lower-end autonomous drones. This could include something as simple as having a group fly a series of planned routes and return with the information gathered via autopilot. By doing so, a group of small, relatively inexpensive drones can cover a large area quickly instead of single, far more expensive assets that could take more time and offer less redundancy. Such a capability could be used for search and rescue, mapping, and general intelligence gathering. This also doesn't require man-in-the-loop control that would necessitate line-of-sight connectivity. Still, it is really flat terrain with endless farmland in the area where the sightings occurred, which means line-of-sight connectivity could be maximized, especially with the help of a large aerial or small tower, but the grid pattern nature of these flights that the Sheriff describes point to a coordinated and automated flight plan for the drones.
The airspace where this is occurring is peculiarly desolate, as well, making it ideally suited for such a task, but the flights are not legally occurring, which makes the whole affair quite suspicious. The fact that the activity is happening after sundown is even more intriguing and adds to the notion that whoever is doing this knows it is outside the bounds of FAA regulations.
In addition, it would be very challenging to trace these aircraft back to their place of origin or point of flight termination. The drones could fly the majority of their missions with lights on and turn them off during launch and recovery. With very little ambient light, they would be all but undetectable to the naked eye. Also, remember that drones this size can takeoff from very small areas, so it's not like a runway is needed or anything like that. As such, they can originate from nearly anywhere.
The reality is that an individual or small group with some resources can do this. It doesn't need to be a federal agency, the military, or some defense or aviation contractor. Although it all sounds relatively innocuous, it is possibly yet another sign of the potential threats small, commercially available unmanned aircraft pose. If the grid pattern reports are accurate and autonomous waypoint navigation is being used by these drones, it can be posited that similar basic concepts of operation were used in the game-changing attack on Saudi oil facilities in September. Furthermore, drones of this size can carry a relevant payload of deadly explosives instead of surveillance or electronic warfare gear. 17 drones flying at once that can surveil a broad area could be re-roled by a nefarious actor to strike 17 pinpoint fixed targets near-simultaneously, or swarm against a single high value one from multiple directions.
This is the same drum I have been beating for years, and eventually, this threat will materialize in the continental United States as it has overseas. With that in mind, this type of event—which we will only see more of in the future—shouldn't be treated as just some interesting curiosity. There is no need to panic, but the mystery behind these aircraft should be solved and whoever is doing it should receive some sort of penalty for executing these types of operations outside of FAA regulations, even if there isn't a dark agenda behind the activity.
Some will say this is an overreaction, but those are probably the same people that laughed when some of us started warning of the potential threat of small drones being used unlawfully and for very negative purposes years ago.
Regardless, a skyborne mystery is afoot in Colorado. It will be interesting to see if the flights continue and if the description of these sightings holds up.
We will keep you updated as we find out more about these strange events.
Update: 4:45pm PST—
It is worth noting that not far where these drones were sighted, F.E. Warren Air Force Base's intercontinental ballistic missile fields begin. Roughly 30 miles northwest of Haxtun. It is something to at least keep in mind as the story unfolds.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com