The latest mystery to manifest in American skies: swarms of drones that fly by night over the Great Plains. Since the middle of December, residents within a 200-mile swath of eastern Colorado and western Nebraska have reported coordinated groups of unmanned aerial vehicles that fly between dusk and midnight. The craft have wingspans of about six feet and at times fly in synchronized grid patterns, dozens at a time, as if mapping the landscape below.
To state the obvious: It is ominous that so many robot planes can operate for so long, over so huge an area, without anyone — even the authorities — able to figure out who’s operating them or why.
“It’s definitely unusual activity,” James Brueggeman, the sheriff of Perkins County, Nebraska, told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “That’s what we’re investigating and trying to get to bottom of: What is the origin of the flights or the purpose of the flights?”
In response to a query from New York, the Federal Aviation Administration said via email: “Multiple FAA divisions and government agencies are investigating these reports. We do not comment on the details of open investigations.”
The fact that so many drones have been able to operate for so long over such a wide area points to the growing gap between the capabilities of drones and the ability of authorities to track and control them. At present, the FAA has no way to systematically track who’s doing what, where. In an effort to correct that, the agency recently released a proposal for new rules that would require all drones to electronically transmit their location and ID. But it will take some time for the rules to be hammered out and put into effect. “It’s five years out before implementation,” said Peter Bale, an engineer with drone engine manufacturer UAV Turbines.
The rules currently in place are fairly loose. Drones used for recreational purposes that weigh less than half a pound can be operated pretty much anywhere as long as they’re not flown near an airport and fly at an altitude of less than 400 feet. (One notable exception: You’re not supposed to fly drones within New York City.) Drones flown for commercial purposes — a category that likely includes the mysterious UAVs spotted over Colorado and Nebraska — follow stricter rules, called Part 107. Such drones can weigh up to 55 pounds but must be registered with the FAA, and operators must have a remote pilot certification.
Part 107 drones are not supposed to fly at night or out of line of sight of the operator, as the mystery drone swarms appear to have done. But operators can apply for waivers from these rules from the FAA, which has granted thousands of them. Because the waivers do not generally specify a geographical area within which they must be used, the list of issuances can’t help narrow down who might be responsible for the cases at hand.
The use of UAVs has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2018, there were 1.8 million commercial drones in service in the U.S.; by 2022 that number is expected to grow to 5.7 million — suggesting that unexplained drone swarms will only become more common.
Given human nature, it’s unlikely that all such activity will be benign. Last year, creatively malicious users employed drones to drop contraband into an Ohio prison and to drop homemade bombs onto an ex-girlfriend’s home. In England, unknown UAVs have forced authorities to temporarily close both Heathrow and Gatwick airports. So for now it’s a race between the public’s aptitude for mayhem and the FAA’s attempts to rein in the chaos.
“It’s going to be interesting to watch,” said Bale.
This article originally appeared in New York magazine on January 6, 2020.