A band of large drones appears to be flying nighttime search patterns over northeast Colorado — and local authorities say they don’t know who’s behind the mysterious aircraft.The drones, estimated to have six-foot wingspans, have been flying over Phillips and Yuma counties every night for about the last week, Phillips County Sheriff Thomas Elliott said Monday.
The drones stay about 200 feet to 300 feet in the air and fly steadily in squares of about 25 miles, he said. There are at least 17 drones; they emerge each night around 7 p.m. and disappear around 10 p.m., he said.
“They’ve been doing a grid search, a grid pattern,” he said. “They fly one square and then they fly another square.”
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.
‘If any of these drones fly onto your property or are looking into windows, please call the communications center immediately,’ the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office posted on its Facebook page Saturday.
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.
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 verysparsely 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 onefrom multiple directions.