At twilight on New Year’s Eve, 2020, Placido Montoya, 35, a plumber from Fort Morgan, Colorado, was driving to work. Ahead of him he noticed blinking lights in the sky.
He’d heard rumours of mysterious drones, whispers in his local community, but now he was seeing them with his own eyes. In the early morning gloom, it was hard to make out how big the lights were and how many were hovering above him. But one thing was clear to Montoya: he needed to give chase.
As he approached the drones in his car, they “took off very fast” and Montoya tried to follow. He confesses hitting 120mph before losing track of them. “They were creepy, really creepy,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s almost as if they were watching us.”
That night, Vince Iovinella, deputy sheriff at Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, received more than 30 calls from locals reporting drones “zipping around all over the place” – Iovinella himself saw one with red, white and green lights that he also tried to chase. “It outran me,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, neighbouring Nebraska and Kansas were also dealing with their own mysterious drone swarms. From December 2019 to January 2020, residents of the three states were perturbed by multiple sightings of numerous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with wingspans of up to 6ft flying between 6pm and 10pm in grid formations. On the same night that Iovinella was receiving calls, a Nebraska deputy reported seeing 30 to 50 drones in the sky. Witnesses were alarmed by the size and speed of the vehicles. “It got to the point that we were fixing to take up arms,” says Mike, 39, from Lindon, Colorado, who wishes to retain partial anonymity.
But as quickly as the drones came, they disappeared. “That was it, they were gone,” Montoya says. More than a year later, no one knows who was behind the drones. Despite an investigation involving the FBI, US Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are no official answers. Amazon, Google and Uber have denied involvement, and so did a local air force base. “Somebody’s doing something and nobody’s saying anything about it,” Montoya summarises. But even “somebody doing something” is now up for debate: one reporter claims the drones never existed at all.
What really happened in the sky above the American Midwest in those fateful winter months, and what can the incident tell us about new technology and old fears?
Did the mystery drones really exist and, if so, why can’t anyone find out who was behind them? Is a new type of conspiracy theory being born? Are drones the new UFOs?
First things first, there are videos. On YouTube, you can easily find footage of blinking lights hovering over houses, farms and highways in Colorado. It’s evident at least some of these lights belonged to drones, although it’s harder to determine if these drones really were 6ft wide. In early 2020, Douglas D Johnson, a research affiliate with the Scientific Coalition for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Studies, used America’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to uncover reams of FAA documentation about the drone mystery. Johnson’s research revealed that law-enforcement officers in 16 Colorado and Nebraska counties personally witnessed the drone activity, with one Kansas state trooper using night-vision goggles to estimate one drone had a 10ft wingspan.
Brett Tingley is a journalist for The War Zone, a defence news publication. He believes the documents prove something strange did occur. “There are consistencies among the eyewitness reports that suggest these drones possessed longer flight times than most off-the-shelf UAS [unmanned aircraft systems],” he says. He believes the witness testimony “appeared legitimate enough to local and state law enforcement, and the FAA, to take the sightings seriously”.
Still, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a frenzy. On 29 January 2020, Vice reporter Aaron Gordon published an article claiming the mysterious drone sightings were “a classic case of mass hysteria” – in an earlier article he noted that the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) flew a Multi-Mission Aircraft for nearly five hours in Colorado on 6 January that year and found no suspicious drone activity. Johnson calls the Vice article “shoddy”, but Tingley concedes some
sightings could have been hysteria, particularly after the drones made national news. Some officials even became a little hysterical: deputies in Nebraska reported finding “space potatoes” after chasing drones through a field. In actual fact, the lumpy brown objects were a farming product used to fill irrigation ruts in fields.
Iovinella agrees that “hysteria built up quickly” and says some witnesses were undoubtedly looking at planes. But: “I was irritated by people saying we didn’t see nothing because that’s not true,” he says. “I know what was happening those first few days of the drones. They were there.”
By 6 January 2020, a multi-agency task force had been set up to investigate – the FBI, Federal Aviation Authority, Air Force and local law enforcement officials made up the team of 70. However, the task force disbanded by 22 January after drone sightings dramatically dropped off. FAA communications manager Ian Gregor now says: “We did not receive any information that enabled us to determine what exactly it was that people reported seeing and, if they were drones, who was flying them.” In a separate investigation, the CDPS examined 23 drone sightings between 6 and 13 January and determined 13 sightings were planets, stars, or “small hobbyist drones”. Six sightings were determined to be “atmospheric conditions or identified commercial aircraft”, while four sightings remained unidentified.
Witnesses such as Placido Montoya aren’t best pleased with the taskforce’s inconclusive investigation, nor the CDPS’s explanations. “I don’t feel safe. I looked up and I felt I was being violated,” he says. Novella stresses that investigations only began after sightings had died down and “the drones had already moved on”.
Why is it so difficult to determine who is flying a drone? In 2018, Gatwick had to cancel hundreds of flights after drones were spotted by the runway. Chaos reigned between 19 and 21 December while police and the military investigated. On 21 December, a couple were arrested – they were later awarded £200,000 compensation for false imprisonment. On 23 December, police said it was “a possibility” there was never a drone at all. In April 2019, police and Gatwick officials claimed the incident was potentially an inside job.
James Scanlan is a design and engineering professor who runs Southampton University’s Strategic Research Centre in Autonomous Systems. He says if an individual is controlling a drone from the ground, then radio frequencies can be used to determine where the transmission is coming from. “The problem comes where there’s a drone that’s flying with radio silence, so it’s not transmitting, no one’s transmitting to it – it might have a flight plan on board so it executes its mission and doesn’t need any control from the ground,” he says. “It’s very hard to do anything about those.”
Clues can, of course, be found in the drones themselves – which is why witnesses in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas wanted to shoot them down. Because these drones were reportedly very large and very fast, some assumed they were military. In early January 2020, FE Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming denied ownership of the drones after inquiries from local newspapers.
So who could possibly possess the kind of technology seen over the American skies last winter? Locals speculate about drug dealers, secret government operations or foreign spies. But Scanlan notes that you or I could purchase powerful drones. “There’s a commercial drone on the market called the Penguin B from a Latvian company that is about 6ft in wingspan and has a very long endurance, so I could go and fly those tomorrow.”
To this day, Tingley still receives emails claiming the mysterious drones never went away. Mike, the witness from Lindon, runs a 3,700-member Facebook group. “We still have people on there who’ve been keeping a very close eye on drone activity,” he says. Mike says the drones interfered with his mobile phone connection and believes they were equipped with audio surveillance, “because the moment we identified the location and pointed a camera up there, they suddenly went blackout.” Other witnesses have made similar claims.
Mike says claims of mass hysteria are “frustrating”, but then references ufologist and conspiracy theorist Milton William Cooper. Asked if he himself identifies as a conspiracy theorist, Mike says: “No, I tend to vet pretty much every lead and if I do not find credible evidence to support that lead I will not push forward with it.” Five minutes later, he begins discussing footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Take the frame-by-frame footages of the towers coming down and compare that to a controlled demolition…”
The individuals in Mike’s Facebook group encompass everyone from curious witnesses to people who believe the drones somehow caused the coronavirus. Some are self-confessed UFO enthusiasts – mystery drones, after all, are unidentified flying objects by another name. In 2018, the top two websites for reporting UFOs revealed there has been a rapid decline in worldwide UFO sightings since 2014. In January 2019, drone researcher Faine Greenwood claimed, “This decline coincides with the period when relatively advanced drone technology first became truly accessible to consumers” in a Slate article entitled, “Drones are the new flying saucers.” In emails about the mystery drones uncovered by Douglas, one FAA official remarked, “Not too long ago we would have called these ‘UFOs’.” Their colleague replied: “Yep! Now everything is a drone!”
In her article, Greenwood explains that this is likely down to good old human psychology. “If we see something we can’t identify, we’re likely to slot in whatever seems most plausible – and what seems plausible may change depending on current events and modern fears.” Greenwood cites multiple instances in which pilots mistakenly reported drone sightings. (In 2016, police reported that a passenger plane at Heathrow collided with a drone before the UK’s transport minister clarified, “It may have even been a plastic bag.”)
Conspiracy theory expert Daniel Jolley, a psychology professor at Northumbria University, says even when drone incidents are real, mystery can breed suspicion. “When people hear about such things, they interpret this information in line with their prior beliefs… If you believe that powerful forces are up to shady things and generally have a mistrust of official information, you could be more likely to see a hidden motive.”
But Greenwood also believes, “We absolutely should be concerned about the malevolent use of consumer drones.”
Johnson says he has obtained documents from America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission that show there were 57 drone-related security events at NRC-licensed facilities between 2014 and 2019; only five of these incidents were deemed resolved. He has also discovered that on two nights in September 2019, security guards reported seeing a number of drones flying over the largest power plant in the US, Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona.
In January 2021, a year after Montoya first saw drones in the night sky, the Pentagon released a new strategy to counter small drones, with official documents stating, “Technology trends are dramatically transforming legitimate applications of [small drones] while simultaneously making them increasingly capable weapons in the hands of state actors, non-state actors and criminals.”
Many of the FOIA documents obtained by Johnson were redacted, including witness photographs of drones in FE Warren documents. Was the whole thing real or imagined? A conspiracy or a covert operation? Could it even be a bit of both? Some suspicious drone hobbyists believe the FAA itself orchestrated the mystery so they could enforce tighter regulations. On 26 December 2019, the FAA proposed that all but the smallest drones should broadcast tracking signals to allow them to be remotely identified.
One thing is evident: drones, real or imagined, are capable of causing chaos. “What caught me off guard is we have no answers to this day and it’s like everybody is OK with it,” Montoya says. At first, he thought Amazon was behind the drones. Now he wonders whether it could be the government or foreign powers. Before we end our call, he offers up one final theory. “It could have been aliens,” he says, with a laugh.