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Who’s Behind Those Mystery Drone Swarms? An Investigation (nymag.com)
55 points by dankohn1 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

What a mystery. The article mentioned winged drones that could "make round trips of about nine miles". A range like that would make for a fairly narrow search area for a base.

Then again this NY Times article (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/01/us/drones-FAA-colorado-ne...) said "local officials were studying the flight path of the drones and coordinating across county lines to figure out where they were coming from."

If they're crossing county lines, that seems like a long distance.

The pattern sounds predictable based on the reporting. Could a sheriff helicopter track them to where they land? Could a photographer team up with a searchlight operator to get a clear close-up photo of a drone, maybe identify the drone make/model, then start to identify the types of equipment (e.g. photo, lidar, other sensors) for clues?

The other puzzling part of this is that if a well-funded entity wanted to test in secret, they could probably find unpopulated areas to test over. Unless the testing relates to features of a populated area.

Another, less-nefarious (than military exercises), option: animal surveys[1].

> Another benefit of drones over current methods is that the industrial grade drones offer thermal or infrared technology, which means surveys could be done at night, when deer are typically more active

[1] https://www.ckwri.tamuk.edu/news-events/tpwd-joins-ckwri-stu...

I believe this is the most reasonable answer. This is purely speculative, but it is a temporal chain of events.

If you look back (web) for Robert Bigelow and NIDS, Colm Kelleher, prions, surveillance, etc. ... you'll find (pre-Skinwalker) a report by NIDS that concluded cattle mutilations were a covert surveillance for prions, present in cattle as "mad cow disease" (note Britain and BSE epidemic).



Prions -- infectious, pathological (fatal with no cure), virtually indestructible, naturally-occurring proteins - are present in wild game as chronic wasting disease. Do any search on game hunting, annual reports ... and there's much discussion on CWD, deer, elk ... There are also numerous governmental websites / reports on prion prevalence in domestic / game populations.

Aerial surveillance -- infrared at night -- is a facile approach to tracking game populations ...


Again highly speculative, but the incidence maps for cattle mutilations / prion prevalence / those mystery drone sightings overlap.

Cattle mutilations:









Given the potential risk to domestic herds, humans, and economies (and the consequences of rumor and panic), it makes sense that these events connect as clandestine, molecular epidemiology surveillance efforts.

6-foot wide drones are very expensive and there aren't that many people that can afford risking 50-100k in one go for whatever this is, so I'm guessing it's the military, which would be long overdue.


I know people who build ardupilot based wing systems that have 2 meter wingspans, and flight endurance times in the 1:45 to 2:30 range, all up cost under $4000 per craft. Using fairly normal NCR18650GA batteries and pixhawk cube black flight controllers.


You are right, I thought this was quadcopters not fixed wing. I also built ~3 meter wingspan "drones" in the past for less than $2000/100km range, fun times.

My guess is that these are hobbyists having fun. This is my guess because I've had similar ambitions and done similar research. There's a lot of software for DIYers to make a fixed wing gas/nitro powered plane autonomous. There's ethical dilemmas surrounding this (endangering existing air traffic) but inexpensive long ranged drones are quite valuable for the drug smuggling industry and could make the operators a lot of money. And these people probably don't care much about the safety hazard.

Why would such illicit operators have running lights on?

Why not? You can't shoot them out of the sky or realistically recover them in any way unless you're the one controlling them. I doubt they're drug running in the middle of Colorado. I would run lights on my theoretical illegal drone to help lower the risk of other aircraft hitting it if I was just doing it as a hobby

The TL;DR seems to be: Some entity is flying drone swarms in Colorado and Nebraska. You need a number of permits to do so, but none of the entities that have such permits and the right kind of drones are admitting it's them.

So, either someone is lying or someone is flying without a permit. Or, and this is my addition, someone is flying the drones who doesn't need a permit, somehow.

> Or, and this is my addition, someone is flying the drones who doesn't need a permit, somehow.

"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." -- Sherlock (Arthur Conan Doyle)

Assuming nymag did their research correctly (it seems a pretty simple series of steps), then the most logical conclusion is that someone has a non-public permit. Which points to military or military-adjacent.

It's addressed in the article that even military uses require permits, for normal military operations. The permit system is there for good reason! No permits are file and the military bases in the region deny using drones.

However of course clandestine operations are exempted from public permits, which makes this all the more interesting...

Military makes little sense though, why conduct testing or operations in one of the worlds most heavily populated metropolises when you clearly have alternate options?

Maybe you want to test feasibility of using your assets for combat in urban areas.

US Military has urban areas at its disposal, could this not be done around fort bragg for example?

I feel one step short of donning a tinfoil hat, but maybe the drones are used for monitoring someone/something in the area where they are being observed?

I’ll take another half-step: perhaps these drones are being used to make someone with ties to that area believe they are being monitored by them in an effort to see how they react.

The sustained media coverage would help with that.

Probably there are no such locations with high rise buildings. I'm pretty sure they need to have surveillance in such areas tested properly in real life.

Could be to test a distributed wide-area surveillance system in realistic conditions.

non public can be non military as well.For example, DEA in cooperation with local law enforcement per scanning for illegal drug farming.

I thought you were going to say ALIENS!

title feels a little clickbaity, especially for how short and inconclusive the article is.

That seems harsh. The article runs ~ 1300 words, which is right for a short feature and how conclusive can an investigation into a "mystery" be? There's no claim they solved it

The investigation seems to be they checked the database and emailed 2 or 3 firms or got a call with them to ask “is this you”. Was there more to it?

Normally this piece would be the piece you’d give your editor to say “looks like no ready answer, would you pay me to do an investigation?”

Would you prefer that no news outlet writes about it until the mystery is solved and wrapped up with a neat bow?

Why doesn't someone take a receiver to these drone-sighting sites and end the mystery by looking at what they're doing?

Yes it’s illegal to shoot them down but...what other means might there be to discover who and what is going on?

How is shooting one down going to tell you any of that?

You can see the components it's made of, or whether they're using one of the established fixed wing drone manufacturers. Look at sales records to see who's buying those drones or components in Colorado, get a search warrant, and then bust them for owning these drones.

Maybe someone will protest and come claim them? Maybe netting them so you don't destroy them could be an option.

Curious why no one has used a telescope to check out the drones. This be a far simpler and cheaper solution than dispatching planes or landing on them. Would it not work?

If the DEA were developing swarms w/IR sensing to canvas areas for things like like grow operations I'd expect them to stay mum about it exactly how this is playing out.

TL;DR: the article doesn't answer its own question.

Why can’t someone rig up a DJI drone with an adhesive base, land it on the mystery drone, leave the camera engaged, and figure out where they go?

Weight, there is an inverse relationship to lift for single wing (*copter) crafts. Once that dji lands, the drone would need to add power which either it doesn’t have or will kill its battery before ending its mission. The DJI won’t know the direction the drone is going so it can’t “add lift” in a meaningful way. Also you have no idea of the blade configuration and you may not even be able to land atop these things!

A better option is to outfit the DJI with a thermal or nightvision lens and have it track the drones. Also a DJI is probably a bad choice if the drones are industrial in nature and larger than the DJI (thus faster and longer lasting power source).

I’ve thought about being that rogue drone operator for 5 years now, but the one thing that always stops me is forensic analysis. Shoot one of those drones down, do some part analysis to see who manufactured it and when, where it was sold etc and you whittle your search area down to a few thousand people. Not hard for the FBI/DHS/FAA/FCC to figure out who you are. Let me say this differently, if this where a question of national security the drone operators would be found within days

What's the interval they've been flying at? Has any been keeping track of how often they're spotted?

It's hysteria

Stars, satellites or planes in the distance. The strangest things would be weather balloons.

We have moved form Aliens to drones. Same happened at Gatwick Airport.

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