When you think about it, UFO sightings used to be all the rage before the invention of drones and mobile phones. Now, with everyone carrying a camera in their pocket those stories have all but disappeared. And it’s with that thought in mind that we look at not only this great mystery, but others that have made the headlines over the past couple of years. And, through our investigation we’ve even discovered that there’s a term for the phenomenon of people who see drones in the sky. It’s called the “Schrödinger’s Drone”.
So, kick back, relax and let our departure from our normal content take you down some of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time involving drones.
And, we give you permission to continue with the X-Files theme tune that’s playing in your head right now…
The Colorado Drone Mystery
Investigators have admitted they are no nearer to solving the mystery of swarms of drones flying nightly over Colorado in a uniform pattern seven months ago.
Local law enforcement officers in northeast Colorado first received reports of the drones flying in formation during the week before Christmas 2019. The phenomenon continued into January 2020, but despite extensive investigations by the US Federal Aviation Administration, they are still in the dark.
News stories first appeared on local online media sites on 23rd December, reporting how residents had seen up to 20 drones flying over their homes. This happened nightly, between 7 pm and 10 pm, for several weeks, until they disappeared as suddenly as they had begun.
The story trended on social media and was shared all over the world, leading to one of the most gripping mysteries the FAA had ever investigated. It remains unsolved, even though the government civil aviation authority has used everything in its power to get some answers.
Nightly drone sightings
Initial news reports of 17 drones flying in unison over a 25-mile area of Colorado appeared in the Denver Post on 23rd December 2019. Local residents had been reporting sightings nightly to the Phillips County sheriff’s office for around a week.
The drones flew at an estimated height of 200 to 300 feet, appearing at around 7 pm and disappearing after three hours. Police said they appeared to be doing grid search in a pattern, flying one square and then another square, until they flew off at around 10 pm.
They were described as large drones, with a wingspan of around 6ft across, flying over rural towns and fields. Reports flooded in from all across the district, with sightings at Yuma County border, the town of Paoli and the neighbouring town of Haxtun, around 10 miles down the road.
They were said to be flying at 30mph to 40mph and although they were too high to be heard from the ground, residents spotted their white strobing lights, along with steady blue, red, white and green lights. They were viewed through binoculars and found to have plain silver and white colouring.
Possible survey drones
Police said that in terms of unidentified aircraft flying at night, this was a first for the county, as far as they knew. Television news crews rushed to the county and speculation was rife as to why the phenomenon was occurring.
Investigators didn’t believe the drones were “malicious”. A popular theory was that they were drones for surveying for a new pipeline, although this didn’t provide a definitive answer.
In the ensuing months, the FAA has investigated multiple sources, including the military, state and local law enforcement, drone researchers and private companies in an effort to find the answers. There are a number of drone companies in Colorado, but it was deemed unlikely they were testing new innovations in the area.
They usually coordinate any testing with the local authorities to prevent situations such as this arising, as they want people to understand drones, rather than causing “hysteria of this kind”, according to a local operator.
Drones flying through storms
The Scientific Coalition for Unidentified Aerospace Phenomenon filed a Freedom of Information Request on the organisation’s behalf from the FAA. Interestingly, the subsequent documents received from the FAA deepened the mystery further, as they suggested the drones had flown in conditions not normally conducive to a flight.
They had remained airborne for several hours at a time, even in storm-like conditions and high winds. The flight time had been two to three hours continually. More interesting to drone enthusiasts is the fact they appear able to fly in stormy conditions for up to three hours.
The most likely theory is that they were being used for surveying, as experts say the flight patterns suggest they were creating a map. Another theory is that they may have been drones for agriculture use, as some operators fly at night to use infrared cameras to examine crops.
Law enforcers say even if the sheriff’s office identifies the pilots of the drones, they are unlikely to have broken any laws. Regardless of this, they have made the international news channels, prompted a federal investigation and caused a stir among residents. In fact, they have been the talk of rural Colorado and Nebraska.
Sheriff’s captain Michael Yowell, of Lincoln County, Colorado, spotted a drone squadron flying over his own home on 31st December. A few days later, near the state line in Colorado, he documented the drones in several different places to assist local officials’ analysis of their flight paths.
The plan was to estimate which direction they were taking at around 10 pm, when they started to disappear. The police hoped this would enable them to contact someone on the ground who was controlling them as they homed in. The drones were observed flying at least 150ft from buildings and people, but attempts to find out where they went failed.
Unexplained drone sightings worldwide
A study by the Academy of Model Aeronautics found there had been 764 reports of unidentified drone sightings by aircraft pilots in recent years. The Colorado incident is the biggest by far, with the largest number of drone sightings continuing over a period of weeks.
Other mysterious sightings that compare to the Colorado incident – although on a much smaller scale – occurred in the UK in December 2018 and January 2019, when people reported seeing drones around Gatwick and Heathrow airports respectively.
The sighting at Gatwick led to the closure of the airport for 36 hours while an investigation took place. However, no-one claimed responsibility for the drone – and it could never be officially confirmed that it existed. In the case of the Heathrow drone sightings, they officially remain under investigation.
Prior to this, there were mysterious reports, in 2015, of unauthorised drones flying over landmarks and nuclear power plants in France. Unlike the latest Colorado mystery, these incidents didn’t receive the same massive media attention, even though they were never explained.
Reports of UFO
There’s something about drones that grabs people’s interest – such as in October 2018, when the police department in the Township of Wayne, in the United States, was bombarded with phone calls reporting a UFO.
The local news station received reports about strange, flashing lights hovering in the sky above Garden State Parkway. However, the truth was far less exciting. The lights belonged to a drone being used to pursue two robbery suspects, according to ABC News.
Back in April 2016, reports circulated that a British Airways passenger jet had collided with a drone on the approach to Heathrow Airport. However, a few days later, the British government stated, somewhat sheepishly, the object “may have been a plastic bag”!
Meanwhile, in South Australia, a pilot reported hitting a drone in his light aircraft, but investigations showed it was a large flying fox – Australia’s biggest bat species – which can have a wingspan of one metre.
Flights at Auckland Airport were disrupted in April 2018, after airport staff reported an unidentified drone flying around. They later admitted it was a small balloon.
Many drone enthusiasts are sceptical about the multiple reports of unidentified drones all over the world, attributing it to “paranoia”. The Academy of Model Aeronautics analysed numerous sightings and described many of them as “vague”. Others were legal flights, while a lot depended on data that couldn’t be verified.
The term “Schrödinger’s Drone” has been used to describe such incidents. The phrase describes a “well-publicised burst of concern over a drone that may or may not exist”.
It’s a variation of an experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat, carried out by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. It was described as a “thought experiment” and in simple terms related to whether a cat supposedly shut inside a box existed or not.
Drone enthusiasts adopted the term in relation to whether the huge number of unidentified drones apparently sighted actually existed – or whether they could be explained by other logical solutions.
They have suggested that the mystery surrounding drone sightings – such as the spate in Colorado – has taken over from UFO-spotting in recent years.
Are drones the new UFOs?
While people used to look for extra-terrestrials, the “unidentified flying objects” they try to spot now are drones. The mystery isn’t which planet they are from, but rather who on earth is controlling these swarms of drones.
The world’s two leading UFO-sighting and reporting centres say we’re actually seeing fewer UFOs than we used to. The decline began in around 2014 – coinciding with the period when drone technology began to advance significantly and became more accessible to the public.
Although there’s no hard evidence that the increasing popularity of drones is linked to the decrease in UFO sightings, it’s worth considering that the two phenomena could be linked.
Spotting what might be a drone in the sky gives people a chance to say they saw something unusual, without subjecting themselves to possible ridicule by saying they spotted an actual UFO. This makes you look like a genuinely concerned citizen, instead of someone who should perhaps be avoided at a party!
This theory has fascinated British scientists so much that they have carried out research into whether sightings of UFOs throughout history are linked to any particular events happening in the world at the time. The results have proved fascinating.
In 1896 and 1897, numerous reports were received about the sightings of mystery airships flying above California in the US. Researchers believe it may have been a form of “mass hysteria” influenced by the national obsession with technology at the time and the imminent launch of manned flights.
People began reporting sightings of cigar-shaped airships, which started out in California and spread across other states. They were often said to resemble a crude version of the modern Goodyear airship. Some reports said they glided across the sky, while others claimed they had wings that slowly flapped up and down.
Central Michigan University published research entitled The Great Mass Hysteria Episode of 1897 by Robert Bartholomew that claimed Americans were obsessed with science and new inventions in the 1890s. They read plenty of literature about new innovations and were “enchanted by the wonders of science”.
Within this social climate grew the belief that the first airship that was heavier than air was a real possibility. The American population was “fed a steady diet of aeronautical speculation”, according to Bartholomew. This coincided with a sudden surge of airship sightings, which the researchers described as “mass hysteria”.
British researchers published a study in 2002 relating to a high number of reported UFO sightings in the second half of the 20th century. They cited a theory based on “Cold War paranoia” as being behind many of the UK’s UFO sightings.
During this period of political turmoil and deep-seated anxiety, it was believed to be a resurfacing of the “mass hysteria” phenomenon recognised in the US in 1897. Anything unusual that people may – or may not – have spotted in the sky was attributed to being a UFO.
This returns us to the current era, which is marked by political and social unrest and the rapid development of new technology. Some people view this with deep suspicion and anxiety. Researchers have suggested the sudden surge in drone sightings may be a product of the uncertain times that we live in.
People believe unidentified drones are shrouded in mystery – like those spotted in Colorado during December 2019 and January 2020. Like the airships of the 1890s and the flying saucers of the Cold War era, we will probably never get to the bottom of where they came from, or how many were genuine drone sightings.
Some people are afraid of the type of technology used in drones because they don’t understand it, so they see anything to do with drones as being mysterious. We’re surrounded by media reports of people doing foolish things with drones – when in reality, they are a great innovation that can help make many sectors of the industry more efficient.
For the people of Colorado, they may never find out the truth about the drones that flew in formation over their neighbourhood. As a result, it has grown into another urban myth, which will probably still be discussed and debated many years from now.
Get in touch
If you want to discuss anything from this article, then our team of Commercial Drone Experts won’t be able to help. They deal in fact, not fiction. But, if you want to talk about Commercial Drone Solutions that will make your operations safer, faster and more cost effective then that we can do. Just click here to get your enquiry to a member of the team.
Why do you need an RTK License for your drone?
June 29, 2022
How Leicestershire Search and Rescue are Using Drone Technology
June 22, 2022
DJI Matrice 30 Series – The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide
June 14, 2022
Breaking Down Barriers – West Midlands Police build community trust with drones
May 26, 2022