DENVER — As of this writing, no one has stepped forward to take responsibility for the drones that numerous people have reported flying over multiple rural counties in northeastern Colorado.
We do, however, have a pretty long list of who the drones don’t belong to.
The confirmed sightings began with a Facebook post from the Phillips County Sheriff's Office on Dec. 20, and the flying objects have since been reported in surrounding jurisdictions. Local law enforcement has said they don’t know who the drones belong to, though the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office conceded they probably weren’t “malicious.”
Deputies didn't say why they believe the drones aren't malicious.
“They were kind of flying in a grid out in the towns, out in the county, you’d see three or four flying in a line out in the east in the county,” Washington County Sheriff Jon Stivers said last week.
Nevertheless, Stivers said the drones “haven’t invaded anybody’s space as far as housing that I’m aware of.”
“It is concerning because you know, one of the reports I had last night was that the drone is way bigger than 6 [feet]; it sounds like a small jet engine when it’s flying,” Stivers said. “These are not drones that people in our county can just buy.”
Micki Trost, the spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said her agency has reached out to local law enforcement to offer assistance with the drones, but hasn't gotten any requests to do so.
The drones have been reported at night, and 9NEWS has only gotten a handful of videos of them so far.
For what it’s worth, commercial drone operators don’t need to submit their flight plans to the government as long as they stay below 400 feet and follow the rest of the federal regulations. You can find an FAQ about those rules at the link below.
It's worth mentioning that a proposed FAA rule could require drones to broadcast a radio signal so they can be tracked by local law enforcement.
Something like this could solve what's going on in northeastern Colorado — a mystery that’s gotten national attention.
And this prompted calls to numerous agencies and companies that might know something about the drones.
As of Monday afternoon, we still don’t have an answer from anyone taking credit for them — but we have heard from a bunch of folks who said they don’t know anything.
Here’s a list.
The Federal Aviation Administration
On Friday, an FAA spokesperson said the agency has not received any drone reports in northeastern Colorado matching the description shared by the sheriff’s offices there. There were no updates from the FAA on Monday, other than that they are speaking to law enforcement but “don’t have any concrete information to act on at this time,” per spokesman Ian Gregor.
Since we were pointed to the Department of Defense last week, we gave them another call.
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)
After calling the national number for the Department of Defense, we were sent to NORAD, which basically told us they aren’t aware of any drone operations taking place in northeastern Colorado.
They told us to call the FAA, the agency that told us to call the DoD in the first place.
Buckley Air Force Base
A spokesperson for Buckey Air Force Base said he can say "without a doubt" no one from the 460th Space Wing is responsible for the drones.
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
DARPA is experimenting with using a swarm of drones, but an agency spokesperson said the mysterious sightings are not them.
"DARPA has not requested any waivers to fly drones in eastern Colorado or western Nebraska. If the agency were to test vehicles or flight support equipment beyond or off of a military range, we would notify the public, FAA, National Weather Service, and local law enforcement, as we did recently with a series of flight tests in the city of San Diego."
Warren Air Force Base
Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming does have a drone program, but Public Affairs Specialist Glenn Robertson told 9NEWS he can say the northeastern Colorado drones aren't theres.
"Those drones are not ours," he emphasized. "We are currently working with some of our partner agencies like the FAA and some other folks in the area to try and might out who they might be and who has ownership of them."
Robertson said Warren's UAS program focuses on counterdrone technology.
U.S. Special Operations Command
We emailed U.S. Special Operations Command to see if they were aware of anything their agency was doing in northeastern Colorado.
Here's the response we got back:
"This office is unaware of any special operations units conducting training with unmanned aerial systems in northeastern Colorado."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Since one drone operator mentioned the activity in northeastern Colorado could be atmospheric, we contacted NOAA, which does have a drone program.
Awesome, but according to spokesperson Theo Stein, the program isn’t conducting any work in Colorado.
“We certainly don’t have a drone fleet like the news reports describe,” Stein wrote in a text to 9NEWS.
According to its website, Xcel Energy is starting to use more drones for things like inspecting electricity and natural gas lines.
A spokesperson for the energy company got back to us Monday night and said that the drones being flown over northeastern Colorado aren't part of that program.
BNSF does use drones to inspect its infrastructure, but a spokesperson said none are operating in northern Colorado.
In addition, BNSF does not have a waiver to fly beyond visual line of sight.
NioCorp operates a mining project in southeastern Nebraska.
A spokesperson said none of their activity is in Colorado.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS)
A bunch of people asked us to reach out to the USGS, which does have a drone program, and has the words "geological survey" in its name.
A spokesperson said they only use drones from disaster response, so it's not them.
Amazon made headlines for its Prime Air delivery service. But no, a spokesperson said Prime Air is not behind the drones in northeastern Colorado.
Google is also trying its hand at a drone delivery service. Its spokesperson also said the company is not responsible for the northeastern Colorado drone sightings.
But what about …
Colorado Oil and Gas Association
There has been lots of speculation online that the drones are being used for mapping or something else with the oil and gas industry.
Jake Taylor, the spokesperson for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said reports about the drones were “definitely interesting” but that he hadn’t heard anything about who they belong to.
Of course, there are plenty of private companies that do drone mapping in Colorado. We gave a few of them a call.
Black Swift Technologies
This Boulder-based company conducts a variety of atmospheric research missions – including mapping for things like wildland firefighters.
And while a photo of a drone on the company website kind of looks like the 6-foot wingspans of the drones described by Stivers, CEO Jack Elston said the mystery objects don’t belong to his company.
NextEra Energy Resources
The Florida-based company operates numerous wind farms in northern Colorado.
A company spokesperson said nope, they aren't involved at all.
This national drone mapping company showed up on multiple Google searches of large businesses that do this sort of thing — and it has a Denver office.
A spokesperson emailed us though and said they have nothing to do with the mystery in the plains.
Constellis is a national company that purchased Triple Canopy, a contractor for military and private companies that has offices in Colorado.
On its website, Constellis advertises UAV services, but a spokesperson said this company is not aware of drone operations.
"Hi Allison, there is no association to Constellis or our companies," a Virginia-based spokesperson wrote in an email to 9NEWS.
Golden-based Juniper Unmanned also uses drones for mapping, according to its website.
And a company spokesperson told 9NEWS they’re assisting the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) in eastern Colorado; however, they end their operations at dusk and don’t fly at night – contrary to the reports from local law enforcement about the activity of the mystery drones.
This means Juniper Unmanned isn't involved.
But, if CDOT is using drones, would they know anything? We placed a call to find out.
The Colorado Department of Transportation
CDOT spokesperson Tamara Rollison nixed any theory the drones could be associated with CDOT.
“We would not be flying drones around at night,” she said.
Alright … back to the drawing board …
Adventure UAV is another Colorado-based company that does drone mapping. Tyler Mattas, the owner, said he’s not behind the mystery in northeastern Colorado, but did have a couple of theories.
Among them was the fact it’s a single large drone with a bunch of lights that people are confusing as multiple aircraft in a grid pattern.
Regardless, he said it’s most likely commercial.
“It’s not your average hobbyist,” Mattas said. “I don’t think any local people are operating drones that large.”
One thing he mentioned was checking the FAA’s website – after all, if the mystery northeastern Colorado drone operator is legit, they would have to get a waiver to fly at night and outside of the line of sight, assuming their flight pattern is as expansive as the reports suggest.
This led to a rabbit hole search of the FAA’s website, which lists all the waivers that have been granted.
Multiple companies showed up on the search, and we contacted all of them. We’ll only update this with who we’ve heard back from.
This is a company out of Nebraska that uses drones to survey power lines in that state and Northeast Colorado. Not only is this company not operating the mysterious drones, but owner Dusty Birge is also surprised that no one else has claimed them
"I am surprised that no one stepped forward because if I was a company, bad news spreads way faster than the good news."
What he worries about more than a bad reputation, though, is the safety problems associated with this.
"What I'm worried about is the safety of my employees. I've had people threaten myself or employees either both to shoot the drone or them physically and that's unnerving."
Here’s where things get interesting: Uber actually has an FAA waiver to fly drones at night, as well as outside the line of sight. But, in an email to 9NEWS, a spokesperson said the company currently doesn’t fly in Colorado.
Zipline International Inc.
Zipline is a company with a noble mission: Deliver lifesaving medical supplies with drone. It was kind of a stretch they’d be flying a grid pattern in northern Colorado at night, but we thought we’d email them anyway since they have FAA waivers to fly at night and outside the line of sight.
Lo and behold, they said they are not responsible for the drones.
Flytcam Motion Pictures
This was another stretch when it came to being the company that was actually responsible for the drones, but they do have FAA waivers for flying at night and outside the line of sight so, we thought we'd ask.
The response: Nope. Not them.
Colorado State University
The CSU Drone Center does have a waiver to fly at night in Sedgwick County, but Christopher Robertson -- who's in charge of it -- said this was for research at a historical site and hasn't happened since July 2019.
So, it's not CSU.
1Up Aerial Drone Services Inc.
This Colorado company also does aerial drone services in Colorado. Chuck Adams, the CEO, said he’s not behind the northeastern Colorado drone sightings.
He did have one compelling theory though – that the drones aren’t a drone at all.
He sent over this video of the SpaceX Starlink Satellite Train:
It would go against what local law enforcement and people who have reached out to 9NEWS have said, so it was worth a few more phone calls and emails.
NASA has not yet responded to a query about if this is a possible explanation. SpaceX also hasn’t responded to an email or tweets. We’ll update this story when we get a yes or no answer.
One more thing worth a mention? Recreational drone users don't need a special waiver to fly at night. So, it's possible the drones belong to someone (or a group) just doing it for fun, but not likely, given the reported size of the drones.
Gov. Jared Polis released the following statement about the drones:
"As soon as I heard about the sightings, I asked our Department of Public Safety to find out what was going on. I’m actively monitoring the reports of drone sightings in eastern Colorado and share the expressed concerns of law enforcement and local residents. I haven’t yet received any substantial information beyond what has been reported. While it remains a mystery who is flying these drones and why, it’s certain they have caused a bit of a stir and I want to get to the bottom of it and make sure that no person or property is at risk."
Do you have a theory or leads about the northeastern Colorado drones? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll follow up.
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