The mystery of their origin has gripped Colorado, where news of a sighting makes near-daily headlines and no one has yet copped to operating the aircraft. The state’s governor, Jared Polis, deployed the state plane to hunt them down after a pilot believed one of the objects came too close to a Flight for Life helicopter. And a constellation of government agencies has formed a task force to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Representatives from some 77 agencies, including the military and the FBI, met for a closed-door briefing in the small town of Brush on Jan. 6.
“The group is not going to discuss the details of its inner workings, and is not planning to provide incremental updates on its activities,” Ian Gregor, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson based in Los Angeles, told The Daily Beast. “But we will inform the public about any important developments.”
The FAA has reached out to UAS test sites, drone companies, and companies that have authorization to operate drones in the area, “but we have not been able to determine that any of these operators were the source of the reported drone flights,” an FAA statement read.
In the vacuum of any definitive answer about who might be responsible for the aircraft, theories have ricocheted around the internet. Media have been drawn to small towns on the Colorado-Nebraska border. A storm chaser crew is on the case. Some observers believe the UFOs could be alien visitors. Other locals say what they’ve been seeing are merely quadcopter-style drones.
“There’s nothing about these sightings that’s inconsistent with drone technologies, so why reach for the most extreme explanation?” Seth Shostak, an astronomer with the SETI Institute in California, which uses powerful sensors to search for aliens, told The Daily Beast.
“Besides, everyone knows that the alien spacecraft prefer the American Southwest,” Shostake joked. “Must be the Tex-Mex cuisine.”
What’s weird, even for those who discount the possibility that the UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin, is the low population of Eastern Colorado, an expanse of rural farmland. Why bother mounting such a sustained campaign of drone aerobatics in a place with so few people and so little industry?
Unless, of course, people and industry aren’t the targets. Some of the counties where drones have been spotted do butt up against F.E. Warren Air Force Base in neighboring Wyoming. There, airmen at the base man and protect around 200 underground silos housing Minuteman nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), each packing enough firepower to wipe out several cities. It’s disturbing enough to see formations of glowing drones maneuvering in a grid pattern over sparsely populated expanses of land. It’s more disturbing still to see them lingering near nuclear-missile silos.
Since residents first reported the UFOs around Dec. 20, local and state government officials, including the Air Force, have denied they have anything to do with the nocturnal air shows. No one can quite figure out what the apparent drones are doing, or why.
The mystery has become big news in Colorado.
Michael Yowell, a captain at the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, has added drone patrol to his law enforcement beat. He told The Daily Beast he has seen the mysterious objects more than once over Hugo, a town with a population of fewer than 800.
An abnormal red light will appear on the horizon, he said, and soon a drone, or whatever it is, will buzz by overhead. He described the curious phenomenon to The Daily Beast as square in shape with red lights on the corners and a white light in the middle that move around at a consistent speed of about 45 miles per hour at a few hundred feet in the air regardless of the wind, emitting a low hum and high-pitched whine.
“It doesn’t sound like your normal drone,” he said. “It sounds like a motor. It sounds like a jetliner when you’re standing next to an airport.”
The Air Force and the other military branches operate thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles ranging from airliner-size Global Hawk spy drones to Reaper hunter-killers the size of Cessnas. The military equips many of its ground units and ships with hand-launched drones including quadcopter-style models. The small, radio-controlled UAVs help scout ahead of ships and ground troops and patrol sensitive sites such as air bases and potentially missile fields.
In 2015, one of the Army’s hand-launched Raven drones strayed from Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, flew over the city, and crashed in a man’s yard. An investigation determined the operators had broken Army and FAA rules. The Air Force in particular also uses small drones as targets for developing countermeasures against an enemy’s own drones. The 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren hosts a security squadron that protects the missile fields. Equipped like infantry and riding in Huey helicopters, the security airmen train to defend the ICBMs against protesters, criminals, terrorists, saboteurs and even clueless civilians who might wander toward the silos.
When cheap drones hit the market and terror groups began modifying them to carry explosives, the security airmen started carrying devices to track potential aerial intruders. Louisiana-based Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the service’s ICBMs, confirmed to the Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs that it conducts counter drone exercises out of F.E. Warren.
According to the Gazette, the security squadron at the base uses equipment developed by Dedrone in San Francisco. The Dedrone tech detects and pinpoints the radio signals that connect drones to their human operators. Testing the tech could require deploying actual drones over the base.
But Air Force Global Strike Command repeatedly has insisted the apparent drones people are seeing over Colorado aren’t its own.
“We can confirm that the drones spotted in Colorado and Nebraska are not from F.E. Warren Air Force Base,” command spokesperson Carla Pampe told The Daily Beast in a statement. “We do have counterdrone systems. But we cannot speak to specifics due to operational security.”
It turns out the Air Force is just as curious about the mystery objects flying near its silos as civilians. “F.E. Warren is working with the FAA, the FBI and state and local authorities to determine the origins and operators,” Pampe said.
On Jan. 13, the Colorado Department of Public Safety announced it was scaling back its investigations into the drone sightings that have turned Eastern Colorado into the epicenter of a baffling post-holiday media sensation.
“Despite all of the reported activity, we are still unaware of any crime being committed,” the department’s director, Stan Hilkey, said in a statement. “While I can’t conclusively say we have solved the mystery, we have been able to rule out a lot of the activity that was causing concern.”
Back in Lincoln County, Captain Yowell believes investigators will likely crack the case with old-fashioned police work. Area law enforcement have been asking residents to report any activity they think might be related to the aerial objects.
“We all agree that the way this is finally going to get resolved is somebody on the ground — or these drones are going to be homed back to a certain location, and that’s where we’re going to get our break,” Yowell said.