Drone mystery lights up Colorado skies

January 30, 2020  - By
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A proposed FAA rule — open for public comment until March 2 — would require drones over 0.55 pounds to electronically transmit their location and ID.

Northeastern Colorado was visited with a mystery in late December and January. Residents began seeing drones from 7 to 10 p.m. each night, moving in groups as large as 30, and flying in a grid pattern. The drones stayed about 200 feet to 300 feet in the air and flew steadily in squares of about 25 miles, at speeds estimated at 25–40 mph.

Reports were so numerous that a multi-agency task force was formed to investigate, including 10–15 law enforcement agencies as well as the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The drones were reported to measure six feet across and sound like a small jet engine. “These are not drones that people in our county can just buy,” said Washington County Sheriff Jon Stivers.

Numerous government agencies and companies denied the drones were theirs, including the U.S. Air Force, NOAA, NORAD, the FAA, and large drone developers Google, Amazon and Uber.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) flew the state’s Multi-Mission Aircraft in an area where drones had been reported during two January missions.

This DFPC map, obtained by FOX31 TV, shows possible locations of drone sightings along with power plants, pipelines and missile sites. (Map: Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control)

This DFPC map, obtained by FOX31 TV, shows possible locations of drone sightings along with power plants, pipelines and missile sites. (Map: Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control)

Some suspect the drones were part of a secretive Air Force counter-drone program to protect nuclear missile silos. Another theory was a hunt for a missing nuclear warhead from one of the many intercontinental ballistic missile sites that dot the prairies of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.

A group of Wichita, Kansas, drone enthusiasts also came forward, saying they had flown groups of drones in the area — but not to the same scale.

In an interview at January’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told Yahoo Finance, “We don’t know who they belong to, we don’t know who’s operating them, to this day we do not.” Her department oversees the FAA, which issues Part 107 waivers to drone operators, allowing them to fly at night or out of line of sight of the operator. The waivers (thousands have been issued) lack enough specifics to narrow down who might be responsible for mystery drones.

A proposed FAA rule — open for public comment until March 2 — would require drones over 0.55 pounds to electronically transmit their location and ID, giving agencies access to information on drones in flight.

The new remote ID requirement would help with the creation of the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management System, a project between the FAA, NASA and other agencies to “ultimately identify services, roles and responsibilities, information architecture, data exchange protocols, software functions, infrastructure, and performance requirements for enabling the management of low-altitude uncontrolled drone operations,” according to the FAA.

As of press time, no one has come forward to claim ownership of the drones. The public is encouraged to submit reports. As The X-Files’ Fox Mulder might say, “Watch the skies.”

About the Author:


Tracy Cozzens has served as managing editor of GPS World magazine since 2006, and also is editor of GPS World’s sister website, Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.

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