Questions Linger as Search for Mysterious Drones in Colorado Ramps Down
BY Zacc Dukowitz15 January 2020
By now you’ve probably heard about the mysterious drones that have been spotted flying in formation at night in Colorado and Nebraska.
Reports of the sightings—of which there are dozens, if not hundreds—first began in the last few weeks of 2019 and have continued up until just a few days ago.
When the story first broke right before Christmas it quickly became national news. The FAA and the FBI were called in, and a special task force was formed to get to the bottom of who was flying these mystery drones and what exactly they were trying to do.
But despite all the chatter, the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) recently announced that it will be scaling back its investigation into the drone sightings.
To date, CDPS has confirmed no incidents involving criminal activity, nor have investigations substantiated reports of suspicious or illegal drone activity.
So what exactly happened in Colorado, and why aren’t we investigating further?
Here Is What We Know
Here is everything we know so far about the mysterious drones reported flying in rural areas of northeastern Colorado and northwestern Nebraska:
- The sightings have occurred in seven contiguous counties in eastern Colorado and three counties in western Nebraska.
- There have been between several dozen and a few hundred reports of these sightings, made both by private citizens and by law enforcement. (Yes, police officers have reported seeing the drones too.)
- The drones have appeared only at night, fly for up to three hours, typically from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., reportedly flying at 200-300 feet in the air.
- The drones have been seen flying in formation and creating grid patterns in swarms of half a dozen to over thirty over an area of approximately 25 miles.
- The drones are “copter-style” and are reportedly six feet wide.
- Only the drones’ lights can be seen in the night sky. These lights have been reported as white, green, red and blue.
- No government agency, private company, test sites, or private individual has taken responsibility for the flights, including the Army and the Air Force.
A map from nightdrones.net purporting to show the locations of many of the sightings
A Quick Reaction from the FAA
Given the high number of reports and the huge amount of press coverage, authorities took the sightings seriously and moved quickly to try and find out who was flying these mystery drones.
Just a little over two weeks after the sightings began the FAA helped form a task force that included over 70 officials. Among those in the task force were representatives from local law enforcement, the FAA, and the FBI.
Here’s a timeline of events:
- December 17 (approximately)—Reports of mysterious drone sightings in northeastern CO and northwestern NE begin.
- December 24—Reports of ’at least 17 drones’ sighted regularly in northeastern Colorado first start making the news (Daily Mail).
- December 25-January 2—CO mystery drones becomes national news, appearing in places like the Today show, ABC News, and on the front page of the New York Times
- January 3—FAA begins an investigation of the mysterious drone sightings (NPR).
- January 6—Drone task force is formed (NPR).
- January 8—A high tech plane joins the search (ABC News).
- January 9—Search for ‘command vehicle’ called off (New York Times).
- January 10—The search briefly re-intensifies after a pilot in CO reports a drone flying dangerously close to his helicopter (ABC News). This incident is later found to be unrelated to the night-time sightings.
- January 14—CDPS announces it’s scaling back its investigation (ABC News).
Some Theories (Conspiracy and Otherwise) to Explain the Mystery Drones
When the mystery drones were first reported, several theories were floated by local law enforcement and others to explain who they belonged to and what they might be doing.
Many of these initial theories were reasonable.
Maybe the drones were just tools for private companies in Oil & Gas doing surveys of the land (although why they were flying at night wasn’t addressed in this theory).
Or maybe they were light show drones doing test runs before a huge light show.
Or maybe they belonged to drug cartels doing drug deliveries or some other kind of clandestine mission at night.
But as time passed and no news surfaced, conspiracy theories began to crop up.
Some claimed the mystery drones were part of a secret government project, while others went straight to aliens.
One fairly convoluted conspiracy theory, which was recently laid out in a Vice News article, claims that the mystery drones are part of an elaborate plot on the part of the FAA to get more support for their new rule on remote ID.
It is true that U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has used the story of the mystery drones to point to the need for remote ID:
Recent news reports out of Colorado and Nebraska of mystery drones flying in formations at night is a timely illustration of why remote IDs are needed.
– Elaine Chao, U.S. Transportation Secretary, speaking at CES 2020
But to jump from that statement to the idea that she cooked the whole thing up in a secret cabal with the FAA to convince the public that we need remote ID seems, well, more than a little far fetched.
Similar to Cho, some public officials have used the story of the mystery drones to talk about privacy concerns, but we don’t suspect them of staging the whole thing to make a point about drones and privacy.
Why the Investigation Is Being Scaled Back
The truth is that, as the number of theories to explain the drone sightings grew, many overlooked a simple, unexciting possibility:
What if people weren’t seeing drones at all?
In an official press release explaining why the investigation into the mysterious sightings was being scaled back, the CDPS details the results of their work.
This excerpt is telling:
From Jan. 6 to Jan. 13: 23 drone activity reports received by the CIAC
- Sightings determined to be planets, stars or small hobbyist drones not meeting the description of large wingspan drones traveling in groups: 13 reports
- Sightings ruled out as atmospheric conditions or identified commercial aircraft: 6 reports
- Sightings confirmed by law enforcement but unable to identify: 4 report
So—of 23 sightings investigated over one week, 19 were explained as “non-mystery drone” phenomena, and only four remained unexplained.
Not exactly grounds for a 70-person task force, right?
But . . . Could the Truth Still Be Out There?
It’s important to note that the report from the CDPS does mention instances of drone sightings that could not be explained (the four mentioned above, along with several others).
These instances may be why people are still convinced that something strange has been going on in the Colorado skies. A website called Night Drones has popped up to help lead the effort, and several private citizens have taken it upon themselves to continue their own research into the mystery drones despite the CDPS backing away.
But the sightings might also be explained simply by our need to believe in something strange, or by the fact that we’re living in high-pressure, high-stakes times.
We’re living in a period of significant geo-political tension, combined with a relatively recent advent of high-functioning drones. Add to that the unprecedented mistrust of what our own government is telling us. Then you add to the mix the rise in so many people getting their news from unreliable sources on social media. And this creates a recipe for rumors and conspiracy theories.
– Robert Bartholomew, Medical Sociologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand
Where Are All the Pictures?
Just one last thing to consider here.
In the age of smartphones, the number of images and videos documenting these mystery drone sightings seems paltry.
Here are the very best images we were able to find of the mystery drones:
These are definitely strange images, but to only have these out of dozens, or even hundreds of sightings doesn’t exactly seem like a smoking gun.
But despite all these sober words, we will admit that the idea of the drones being caused by something mysterious does pique our curiosity. How couldn’t it?
And who knows—maybe the CDPS scaling back their investigation won’t be the last of the mystery drones. If sightings continue, which it seems they well might, we’re sure to hear more about them again before too long.
Do you have theories about the Colorado mystery drones? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.