Like sightings of drones themselves, theories about what the drones are up to range far and wide.
For a week or two, squads of drones have been reported over eastern Colorado and western Nebraska. Later sightings come from a much wider area — McCook, northern Kansas, Dawson, Gosper, Buffalo, Phelps and Hall counties, as well as Merna in Custer County, as far southeast as the Harlan County Dam, in the Hastings area and over Lincoln too.
Officials still don’t know, or they aren’t saying, what the drones are doing. The Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction over drone flights. According to news reports, the FAA says it is investigating. And, there are indications that the FAA is slowly providing information to law officers, according to sources who asked not to be identified.
A meeting of FAA officials and law officers in Colorado and Nebraska is expected to be held Monday in eastern Colorado, according to county sheriffs.
It appears that local law enforcement is among the last to be informed.
Meanwhile, theories abound – that drones are doing census work in remote areas – as well as guesses made in jest – that drones are controlled by hunters scoping out places to poach, or by meth dealers looking for places to build meth labs.
One theory is that they are exploring for oil, using advanced technology to search below ground.
The cost of the drones is estimated at $50,000 or so each, which indicates they are part of a government or a business operation.
Another clue is that they are searching in a deliberate grid pattern, according to information from the Phillips Co. Sheriff.
According to two theories that seem to make the most sense, the drones belong to a government contractor.
One theory says the drones are searching for a missing nuclear warhead from underground missile silos that are in the area. That theory comes from a memo from the Russia’s Ministry of Defence, making it suspect, although it cites some potentially credible sources.
Perhaps the most credible theory says is that the U.S. government is testing new search/reconnaissance technology. Under the theory, a target item is placed in a large search area during the day, and that evening, drones go out to find it.
That comes from Dan Carlson of Gurley, Neb., which is north of Sidney. Carlson says he is a meteorologist, storm chaser, and former pilot with lapsed Department of Homeland Security clearance who’s seen some interesting stuff in the skies and on military bases during his career.
Carlson said he followed a drone the night of Jan. 4 in Cheyenne Co. in western Nebraska. He said its estimated altitude was 800-1,000 ft., and its speed varied from hovering to 60 mph.
“Karen and I successfully chased an unmanned aerial vehicle through rural Cheyenne County last evening…. Later I received pics from a photographer showing a V-shaped formation of other UAVs on a similar course several miles ahead of the one I pursued,” he said on a Facebook post.
Carlson suspects two types of drones are involved. He said a formation of “scanning” UAVs might go out to “paint” an area, looking for the target. Other UAVs might follow at lower altitude to check the findings of the scanning drones.
“Once the target has a positive ID, it would be retrieved by a ground team in the area,” and moved to a new location for the next test, he said. He shared his thoughts to the facebook page, “Mystery Drone Swarm Chasers.”
Whatever is going on, it would be good if it is announced soon. The uncertainty is stirring up fear and resentment from people who suspect the drones are spying.
Drones that fly unannounced missions have been accused of conducting “unreasonable” searches, something that is prohibited under the U.S. Constitution. That concern was loudly voiced when the EPA was accused of using drones to fly over feedlots in Nebraska 6-8 years ago.
In considering the possibilities, the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus said in 2012 that there is a “potential for drone technology to enable invasive and pervasive surveillance without adequate privacy protections.”
Also, according to federal regulations, drones cannot fly at night, nor above 400 feet — two regulations that are being violated, according to sheriff’s reports.
And, the FAA requires every remote drone pilot, or at least their designated visual observer, to remain in the visual line of sight of the drone.
The FAA regs say that at all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain “close enough to the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS for those people to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.”
That means watching the drone through binoculars does not meet the requirement.
Those regulations are in effect unless a waiver is obtained from the FAA. If waivers have been issued, the FAA knows what’s going on but is not talking about it.