Group of “Unidentified Flying Drones” Seen Over Colorado at Night Worrying Residents

For a week earlier this month, residents in Phillips County, Colorado were baffled by drones flying through the night skies.  For nearly seven straight nights between 16 and 20 large drones have been flying strange patterns over the county.  No one knows why the drones are there, who is operating them, and when they may be returning.  Even though these drones have been sighted for a week, there have yet to be any videos captured of them.  This is most likely due to the fact that Phillips County is a very sparsely populated area of Northeast Colorado.  As of the last census taken in 2010 there were less than 5,000 residents living in the county.  The county’s largest town is Holyoke with just over 2,300 residents while it’s smallest town, Paoli, has on 17 residents.  If drones were spotted in a more densely populated area there would surely be video evidence of them.

Phillips County Sheriff’s Office is well aware of these night time drones, Undersheriff William Myers witnessed them himself.  The drones come out around 7PM and fly in grid like patterns until close to 10PM.  They are flying at approximately 200-300ft in the air, and because of this height they are virtually silent to the people down below.  The only way that people were made aware of them is by the bright flashing lights on the drones.  The drones are not flying erratically or racing each other.  They are averaging a speed between 30-40mph.  Last Friday, 8 of the drones spent the night flying over Haxtun while one single drone hovered over Paoli about 10 miles away.

No one has stepped forward claiming responsibility for these drones.  When contacted the FAA, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Army said the drones were not a part of any of their operations.  What the Sheriff’s Office does know is that these drones are most likely commercial drones.  They appear to have a wingspan close to 6ft, putting them in a class of drones over 55lbs.  Drones under this weight limit would be considered toy or hobby drones and out of the jurisdiction of the FAA.  However, all commercial drones over 55lbs. need to be registered with the FAA and require the pilot to obtain a Part 107 license to fly.  These drones also need to be flown manually, they cannot use autonomous flight, and must remain within the pilot’s line of sight at all times.  The FAA further restricts these drones from making nighttime flights, however this regulation can be bypassed with special permission, though as far as the FAA is concerned they have granted no nighttime flight approvals for Phillips County.

Residents of Phillips County have been left confused and worried.  There are concerns that these drones could be spying on them, invading their privacy.  The Sheriff’s Office has asked that residents stop calling in reports of the drones in the sky as they know they are there.  Instead they have told residents that if a drone were to approach and “look” into one of their windows, or land on their property to notify the Sheriff’s Office right away.  Sheriff Thomas Elliott said, “We just want to know if one lands, if we can get our hands on it, or if they see someone operating them, that’s what we’re looking for now, we know they exist.”  As of now the drones aren’t breaking any laws.  Undersheriff William Myers said, “The way Colorado law is written, none of the statutes fit for harassment or trespassing.  Colorado hasn’t gotten on board with identifying the airspace around your property as the actual premises, so we don’t have anything we could charge.”  If a drone is captured it will have a registration number on it that the Sheriff’s Office could then use to identify the potential owner.

One resident tried chasing a drone at about 50mph, but gave up as he was running out of gas.  Other residents have asked if it would be ok for them to try shooting one of the drones out of the sky to identify it.  The Sheriff’s Office was quick to advise against these actions.  Title 18 of the United States Code 32 identifies drones as an aircraft, albeit an unmanned aircraft.  Under federal law the tampering of any aircraft could carry a maximum 20 year prison sentence.  It is also against federal laws to try and jam the radio frequency being used to operate any aircraft, including a drone as outlined in The Communications Act of 1934.  But the question remains, why are there drones flying over this remote part of Colorado and who is responsible for them?

Whoever is responsible most likely knows that they are operating these drones illegally.  Based on the grid like flight patterns being displayed it is safe to assume that the drones are autonomously flying along a preset course.  This combined with the hours at which they are being flown is strictly prohibited by the FAA unless exemption has been granted.  Without getting their hands on one of these drones the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office is left with little to do.  These drones do not need a runway or much space at all for takeoff and landing.  The flashing lights on the drones are being disabled for takeoff and landings as well.  This means that the drone’s point of origin, purpose, and operator will remain a mystery.  The Sheriff’s Office is making sure that their small community remains safe and well within the parameters of law concerning these nocturnal intrusions.  They hope that one night an operator will slip up, giving the authorities an edge to solve this mystery.

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