A Phantom 3 quadcopter drone.
A Phantom 3 quadcopter drone.

Enormous drone swarms baffle US

Mysterious sightings of "creepy" drones flying in formation over rural America at night have alarmed residents and baffled authorities.

For several weeks starting in mid-December, residents in northeastern Colorado reported dozens of sightings of drones - some as big as cars with wingspans of up to six feet - moving in precise, grid-like formations in the night sky for hours at a time.

"Well, they got two red blinking lights and a white light and they look fairly good size. I couldn't tell you how big, but you just see the lights coming, coming from the east and blink," local resident Deanna Schwindt told NPR.

Ms Schwindt, who saw the drones fly over her house every night for more than a week, said they made her feel "uncomfortable, creepy".

"It's like, why? What are they looking for?" she said.

The drones, reportedly flying in large groups of six to 12, were later sighted across the border in neighbouring Nebraska and Wyoming.

"They were kind of flying in a grid out in the towns, out in the county, you'd see three or four flying in a line out in the east in the county," Washington County Sheriff Jon Stivers told media last month.

"It is concerning because you know, one of the reports I had last night was that the drone is way bigger than six (feet) - it sounds like a small jet engine when it's flying. These are not drones that people in our county can just buy."

The bizarre case first hit the headlines in late December after the Phillips County Sheriff's Office in Colorado sent officers out to see the drones for themselves.

"Tonight we tracked over 16 drones between the two counties," police said in a Facebook post. "We believe that the drones, though startling, are not malicious in nature."

 

 

Red lights from wind turbines in the area of Genoa and Hugo, Colorado, where sightings of unidentified large drones in the air have been reported. Picture: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP
Red lights from wind turbines in the area of Genoa and Hugo, Colorado, where sightings of unidentified large drones in the air have been reported. Picture: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP

 

The Federal Aviation Administration, the military, state and federal officials couldn't explain the sightings, while a large number of private companies, from aerial mapping firms to Amazon, Google and Uber all denied being involved.

A joint taskforce was established on January 6 to investigate the reports, but a week later the Colorado Department of Public Safety said it was scaling back its search for the drones, having found no evidence of illegal activity.

On January 7, after a "strategy meeting" with federal, state and local law enforcement, the Phillips County Sheriff's Office said it was asking the public for assistance locating a vehicle possibly linked to the sightings.

"Specifically, we are looking for the command vehicle. We are looking for a closed box trailer with antennas or a large van that does not belong in the area," it said. "If you see anything that resembles this description, please call the Phillips County Sheriff's Office."

Two days later, however, it changed its tune, saying the information was "no longer pertinent or relevant".

"The Phillips County Sheriff's Office is not the task force and our jurisdiction does not extend past Phillips County Colorado," it said. "We will no longer be making any statements or press releases about the drone incidents."

Theories about the drones' origins range from aliens to drug cartels. Some suspected they may be connected to counter-drone activities by the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which protects around 200 underground silos housing nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"We can confirm that the drones spotted in Colorado and Nebraska are not from F.E. Warren Air Force Base," spokesperson Carla Pampe told The Daily Beast.

"We do have counterdrone systems. But we cannot speak to specifics due to operational security."

She added that the Air Force was "working with the FAA, the FBI and state and local authorities to determine the origins and operators".

Paul Pitsky, spokesman for drone detection and airspace security firm Dedrone, which works with the F.E. Warren Air Force Base, told News Channel Nebraska the situation was unusual. "It certainly seems odd in general," he said.

"As a Part 107 pilot (under FAA regulations), you're not supposed to be flying at night. So you're already taking the first step into some activity that's maybe not authorised at this time. That would already sound some sort of alarm bell to me that somebody's doing something they're not supposed to be doing."

Some drone enthusiasts were suspicious about the timing, coming on the heels of a proposed FAA rule that would impose tougher restrictions on drones. That sentiment was echoed by Motherboard in an article headlined "Mass Panic: It's Not Clear That Colorado's Mystery Drones Even Exist".


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