Surveillance Plane Joins Intensifying Hunt For Mystery Drones Over Colorado And Nebraska (Updated)

After meeting with various agencies, the FAA launched a task force to identify the origins of the drone formations seen above Colorado and Nebraska.

Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control

The War Zone was among the first to report back in late December 2019 that eyewitnesses throughout northeastern Colorado had begun seeing formations of large drones flying at night in complex grid-like patterns over rural areas and farmland. Since then, the sightings have multiplied and the drones have begun appearing in neighboring Nebraska, as well. What was at first a curiosity has become a concern, especially after local law enforcement agencies, the FAA, DEA, the U.S. Army, and the Air Force all stated to have no knowledge of the drone activity. It seemed that something far more covert or possibly illegal might be occurring. Just this week, the FAA officially launched a task force to identify the operator of the drones, which includes Colorado's most sophisticated surveillance aircraft, and has begun searching for some sort of command truck or van that may be controlling or at least monitoring the mysterious nighttime drone activity. 

Initial eyewitness reports from just before Christmas last year suggested that the drones appeared to be roughly between three and six feet across and featured bright and strobing lights in various colors. Estimates suggested the drones flew only a few hundred feet in the air at speeds between 30 and 40 miles per hour. Some witnesses even claimed that some of the drones appeared to hover in place for long periods of time. 

Wyatt Harman, a witness who chased the aircraft after they flew over his home east of Denver, told NBC’s "Today" news program on New Year's Eve 2019 that the drones were “unnerving” in their flight capabilities. “They can sit there and hover,” Harman said. “They can descend very fast. They can take off very fast.” 

Many observers initially speculated that a private company, a branch of the military, or a governmental organization was testing some type of broad-area surveillance or navigation system, although there was nothing to actually suggest that an individual or small group couldn’t possess the same capability with off-the-shelf commercial drone technology and some substantial funds. 

Wikimedia Commons

The drones have been seen in Northeast Colorado, Southwest Nebraska, and as far east as Hall and Saunders counties in Nebraska.

The drone sightings have continued and grown remarkably throughout Colorado and Nebraska, recently being spotted in several more counties in southwest Nebraska and on the outskirts of the metro Denver area. There is no mystery as to if the drones are actually being seen. Law enforcement and other officials have seen them and, apparently, they are almost laughably easy to see yourself. Case in point: on Jan. 7, local NBC affiliate WOWT in Omaha went out looking for the drones and readily caught them - or some sort of plane they misconstrued as one - on camera outside Mead, Nebraska, flying low with their engines easily heard. Make sure to watch WOWT's video report by clicking here

Onlookers on the ground also told WOWT that when they pulled out their cameras to photograph the aircraft, the drones turned off their lights and maneuvered away from onlookers below. Many witnesses have described the craft as shaped somewhat like a conventional fixed-wing aircraft, while others like Carlton Britton, Sheriff of Sedgwick County in Kansas, bizarrely described one of the drones as a rectangular "black box" with lights on its sides.

WOWT

A still of one of the drones captured by Omaha NBC affiliate WOWT, brightness and contrast adjusted.

It's worth noting that individual witness accounts of objects flying at night are highly unreliable and are often exaggerated. They must be taken with a grain of salt. But the sheer geographical size of this phenomenon and the large number of witnesses, including police, make the fact that it is happening undeniable. In addition, there has been no shortage of expert theories as to what is going on here, ranging from the absurd to not so absurd, but none of them are without major controversy.

Both Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, and the state's Governor Jared Polis have publicly called for an investigation into the sightings. The drone mystery has gotten serious enough that the FAA and sheriffs from several Colorado counties recently held a closed-door meeting to discuss the incidents with other government officials and form a task force to begin formally investigating these unexplained aircraft. 

While press were banned from the meeting, Los Angeles-based FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor afterward told reporters that the meeting was simply to share information and form a plan to move forward with the investigation:

Today’s meeting was really for a wide variety of agencies to get together to share information and to discuss how we can best collaborate going forward to try and find out exactly what’s going on. We have contacted drone companies, we’ve contact UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] test flights. We’ve contacted companies that have waivers in the area to try to see if they could be the source of these reports, and so far we’ve been unable to determine that any of those entities [were] the source of those reported flights.

Both the Nebraska State Patrol and the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado have issued statements following the meeting assuring the public that the task force will involve local, regional, and national partners including the FAA and FBI in order to monitor the drones and identify who may be flying them. The Phillips County Sheriff’s Office statement mentions specifically that law enforcement agencies are now looking for a “command vehicle” in the form of a “closed box trailer with antennas” or a large van. They have asked for people to report any strange vehicle with this description that is unfamiliar to the area. This may exist, but by our previous analysis, the drones are more likely flown autonomously along a pre-planned route via autopilot, not by a man-in-the-loop control arrangement.

In addition, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control has supplied at least one of its two multi-mission Pilatus PC-12 turboprops, which operate out of Centennial, Colorado. The MMA, or multi-mission aircraft, are equipped with Wescam MX-15HDi sensor balls featuring three separate cameras, including infrared and electro-optical types with wide and narrow fields of views. The MX-15HDi is sensitive enough to detect a small campfire from 28,000 feet and even though they wouldn't have a very hot infrared signature, the MX-15HDi's medium wavelength infrared sensor could identify a drone type and track one it as it flies low over the ground, especially considering they are lit up, to begin with. It could also allow the PC-12 to spot and follow any potential command vehicles on the ground in the vicinity of the drones – if such a vehicle does indeed exist.

In addition to the sensor ball, the plane features onboard broadband internet, enabling real-time data sharing with the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS). The plane typically operates around 20,000 feet and has a loiter time of over five hours.

NWCG.GOV

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control's PC-12 MMA.

The MMA is used primarily to track and monitor smokey wildfires, but can also serve in search and rescue, wildlife management, environmental monitoring, and disaster management. Colorado's MMA program was stood up on Sept. 1, 2014, and in 2015 the MMAs flew over 380 hours, detected dozens of fires, provided fire intelligence on more than 40 missions, and assisted with seven search and rescue missions. Earlier this year, both aircraft were mobilized to Alaska to provide fire intelligence and support on fires in central Alaska.

According to Fox 31 Denver, the plane has already conducted at least one flight in the area in which the drones have been operating. Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control spokesperson Caley Fisher declined to comment on whether or not the MMA was involved in the search for the drones or their owner, however. 

"We do not discuss the investigative techniques or technology we’re using,” Fisher said. “We are actively monitoring reports of suspicious activity and will take action based on the level of activity and information being gathered." Fisher also stated that the operation has so far "found no verification of suspicious drones."

WOWT

A still of one of the drones captured by Omaha NBC affiliate WOWT.

Undisclosed flights by the U.S. military or another government agency are one thing, but unidentified unmanned aircraft flying in complex formations over huge swathes of terrain and operated by unknown parties are quite another. As The War Zone has reported continuously over the years, the weaponization of small drones is becoming one of the most pressing and elusive threats the Pentagon and law enforcement agencies are trying to deal with and they are very late to the game in doing so. 

We reached out to both the FAA and F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which controls the vast intercontinental ballistic missile fields that surround it and is located near the epicenter of these sightings, for more information. F.E. Warren flat out denied having anything to do with it in any way. They seemed just a puzzled as we were and said they were eagerly awaiting the FAA and local agencies' investigative findings. They also said they knew of no contractor affiliated with them that would be doing it, either. 

The FAA was far more nebulous in what became somewhat of a contentious exchange. There has been some debate even among seasoned drone operators over the rules surrounding operations of these drones and if they are indeed breaking the law for a number of potential reasons, but the question of flying at night seems to be the most contentious. After repeated attempts, the FAA would not answer simple questions regarding this issue or clarify the rules for us. It was a strange exchange that seemed to be counterproductive and nonsensical.  

Some were a bit troubled by our first report on this issue and the concerns we raised regarding the situation. Now that this is very much a real thing and not just people seeing lights in the sky here and there, it seems that the powers that be have finally come to that same conclusion, as well. And that is a very welcome development. The fact that it took weeks even to get an air asset involved is quite strange, but at least that capability is now in play. There are many other counter-unmanned aircraft systems that are passive in nature that could also be beneficial. It seems odd that this budding industry hasn't been called to assist in the investigation and show off their new hardware in the process.

We will continue to monitor the bizarre and still-developing situation out of Colorado in the hopes that this task force will be able to identify the operators of these drones. 

UPDATED: 5:30PM PST—

The Clay County Emergency Management Office in Colorado posted the following message to their Facebook page on January 8, 2020. We don't know the accuracy of the information, but it paints a good picture of the confusion the drones are causing for some residents of Colorado and Nebraska and the difficult position it puts local law enforcement agencies in: 

January 8, 2020 Drone action plan for today.

Our elected leaders at the county and state level are aware of the drone issue and I saw an article yesterday that shows Senator Deb Fisher has asked FAA directly for an explanation. I know CO elected officials have made the same request. Your local and state officials are as invested in finding who is responsible for these drones as you and I are.

CO has excellent video footage of the drones when they were out in CO. We have great data on the drones in our area. I won’t elaborate as I suspect that the company running these are monitoring public discussions on social media. We all want information, but do not be chasing the drones.

These drones are doing nothing but flying around. So why the big secret? Why do new stores put up paper in the windows so we can’t see what they are doing inside until the grand opening? They just don’t want us to know and as a drone expert pointed out by rules and regulations related to drone flight, they are not required too.

Now, if I was the CEO, seeing the negative impact it is having on a community I would be rethinking that idea as I know for one, that when it comes out who is behind this, I am not going to be involved in their product. It may be the best, but the tactic and position of secrecy they are taking is not helping any of us.

Their silence is requiring us, as intelligent human beings, to fill in the void of information with “what if”. That can make us uncomfortable. All of us, including me. Trying to find a solution, an answer. I had someone tell me not my circus, not my monkeys yesterday when I asked for their input. He is not part of our system in Clay County. Fine, his choice. People are all over the map on this. Those working this proactively, have the same lack of information we have and are building leads based on the information law enforcement and emergency managers are documenting.

I did step out of my lane today and suggested an investigative tactic that I as your emergency manager would like to see them utilize. I am consulting with many levels on our behalf, sharing our concerns, and working for answers.

Next steps:

The local, state, and federal task force is working in CO and NE. They are the lead agency on this I investigation and operation. We have been asked at the local level to move past the drones flying in our county, to tangible data.

1. Official observers are out and watching for drones and tracking their activity. We have an identified group working as a network here in Clay County and they are doing a great job. They share what they are seeing with me and we work together for this project. The seeing drones in the air is covered by the observation team.

2. New information came in last night associated with a helicopter landing in Harvard and activity in the Harvard area. No injuries, nothing out of what we have been seeing.

a. People did report on FB to me that they saw contrails in the sky behind the drones.
b. Flying in multiples close to town was new.
c. The helicopter was new and important and was reported.

3. You can call our Dispatch Center with unusual activity associated with the drones.

a. Keep in mind, our dispatch center is manned by one staff member.
b. When the drones arrived last night, our dispatcher was dealing with multiple calls about the drones, and other regular activity in the county.
c. When the helicopter landed, she was dealing with more 911 calls, officers out on contacts, and the drones.
d. She had to cook and serve dinner to the prisoners being housed in the CC jail.
e. We had a report of a drone go down in southeast Clay County. She had to notify us and several law enforcement officers and myself went to investigate. It was gone before we got there. At that same time a fire outside of a residence in Clay Center came in via 911. CC Fire responded and resolved that issue quickly. At the time this is going on as well officers were out with a male who was armed with a concealed handgun. And one of their radios stopped working and she could not raise him.

4. Our non-emergency line to CC Dispatch is 402-762-3928.

a. Call if you see a drone on the ground.
b. Call if you see something that I have not talked about on FB the last few days.
i. The helicopter is a good example.
c. If you get video of the craft, not the flashing lights way up in the sky, but flying low enough that you see the aircraft, shape, color and configuration of it.
d. If common sense tells you this is something different and we need to know.

5. After participating in major cases before you follow up on every lead. Unnecessary leads confuse the view of the case and take extra time and staff to try and prove them, to find out they were an errant report. Here is how we can edit ourselves. Using common sense is a good marker. They know we have drones in our county. Do I need to call? Nope!

6. The State Patrol Tweeted out this site that you can go to, so you can file a direct report with them. The issue with that is, once it is with them, they can not share it back to us. If we don’t know locally, we can not add the pieces of the puzzle together to keep you updated on what is occurring. That piece you share with that site, may be the one I am needing to connect it all. I send all your reports to them in my reports. We keep our records of what we do and send them multiple updates daily. I was just notified that the agency who pushed out the web site should not have done that, as we were told yesterday. It is for official use only. My apologies. When I saw it on Twitter and on news stations I figured I had missed a memo. Someone else missed the memo of not sharing it.

Meanwhile, the Morgan County Sheriff's Office posted their own drone warning to Facebook, advising residents not to shoot at the drones and adding that the command vehicle reports are unsubstantiated, adding in a comment that "the vehicle and trailer descriptions are based on pure speculation. It may be accurate; but there is no information, at this time, that supports it."

UPDATED: 1/9/2020

On Tuesday, January 7, a Flight for Life medical helicopter pilot nearly collided with a suspected drone after flying within 100 feet of an unidentified small aircraft. Pilot Kirk Peebles and his crew were responding to a routine medical call near Fort Morgan, Colorado northeast of Denver when the close call occurred. Peebles told NBC affiliate 9News.com that the drone flyby happened so fast his crew didn’t have time to respond or identify what type of aircraft it was. "A drone just went right under us," he said. "Probably about 100 feet."

Peebles and his crew fly out of St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood, Colorado. Despite using night vision and flying with a vigilant crew, the drone went entirely undetected until the close call happened. "I’m always on the lookout. That’s the nature of the business and what we do," said Peebles. "They’re looking for aircraft constantly for me. Things that I might not catch right away." 

For a pilot like Peebles who has to respond to medical emergencies quickly and with little warning, these mystery drones pose a serious threat. "They’re not telling anybody who they are, what they’re doing," said Peebles. "What I care about the most is our survival, our ability to do the mission, and do it quickly and safely."

Following Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ second (D) State of the State address given on January 9, local reporters asked the governor what he thinks the outcome of the drone panic will be. Polis said in light of the near-miss with the Flight of Life helicopter, the drones are no longer simply a “novelty” and now clearly pose a public safety threat:

Just today, I talked to our Director of Public Safety to do more state monitoring. We used one of our state planes to do flyovers a couple days ago, looking for heat signatures, we didn't detect any. We're going to be doing that again. I was most concerned when I saw an article, I think it was today or yesterday, that there was a near miss from a Flight for Life helicopter and a drone that was operating. This is no longer a novelty. I think we need to figure out what's going on before any accident occurs.

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com