Drones Make Nightly Appearances on the Eastern Plains

Illustration: Rigby Guerroro · The Sentry

Rural areas deal with unusual nuisance

The plains of eastern Colorado are, on most days, a place of desolate dirt roads and wide expanses of farmland. Residents of everybody knows everybody towns like Hugo, Colorado go about their days in comfortable routine, enjoying the relative peace and quiet of life on the prairie. 

Though, the latter half of December 2019 marked the arrival of unwelcome visitors to the region. Scores of drones have been taking to the skies as night falls, identifiable only by the low whir of rotors and an assortment of blinking red lights.  

Many of the mysterious drones spotted have 6-foot wingspans, traversing the night sky in rigid, grid-like patterns until sunrise. Their origin is still unknown. 

As teams of local and federal authorities search for the owners of the drones, the nighttime flights could become more than just a localized nuisance. On January 8, a medical helicopter flying out of Denver International Airport reported a drone flying in “dangerous proximity.” The close call prompted the deployment of additional ground units and a multi-mission aircraft (MMA) to search for vehicles on the ground that could be a command unit for the drones. No such vehicle has been located as of yet. 

As drone sightings increase, so too does the urgency of residents’ search for answers. What exactly are the drones doing, and who owns them? Some have speculated that the drones could be the work of oil and gas companies, or even the military. Yet, the Air Force, the Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have all denied involvement in statements made to The Denver Post. 

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires drone operators to receive a permit for nighttime flying above a certain height, it cannot be determined whether a crime has actually been committed until the owner of the drones has been identified. 

Authorities in Hugo and other towns across the eastern plains are stretching their already limited resources, trying to respond to reports of drone sightings that flood in each night.  

The Phillip’s County Sheriff’s Office said on January 6 that “a strategy meeting was held today in Brush, Colorado with Federal, State and local law enforcement agencies regarding the drone issue. None of the agencies can confirm that the drones are malicious.” 

   The FAA stated that it has already ruled out drone test sites and qualified drone operators in the area, though the organization cautioned local pilots and airport staff to stay vigilant. 

“Multiple FAA divisions are working closely with federal, state and local stakeholders to determine whether the reported sightings in Colorado and Nebraska are drones and, if so, who is operating them and for what reason.” 

The issue has even drawn attention from Senator Cory Gardener, whose hometown of Yuma has been at the epicenter of drone activity. Gardener tweeted on January 3 that “the FAA are working with federal law enforcement to track down the operator.” 

Drones continue to explode in popularity and are still almost impossible to identify with current FAA regulations. As nightly flights over homes and businesses increase, only time will tell what will become of the bizarre drone activity on the eastern plains. 

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