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Drone swarms in 3 states prompt FAA, FBI investigation of mystery

Sheriff's departments across Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska have been flooded with reports of mysterious nighttime sightings.

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A number of agencies met this week to try to figure out who's responsible for the clouds of drones.

Kittikorn Nimitpara/Getty Images

Federal agencies and local law enforcement in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska met this week to investigate a mystery that's generated buzz in those states: swarms of drones.

Since mid-December, sheriff's departments in the border area of the three states have been flooded with at least 30 reports of nighttime drone sightings, sometimes groups of a dozen or more machines, and sometimes flying in formation. The FBI, Federal Aviation Administration and US Air Force have been called in and are reportedly investigating the drone swarms. As of now, no one seems to know who owns or has been operating them.

The Colorado Springs Gazette reported this week that the Air Force itself might be behind the drones, as part of a secretive counterdrone program designed in part to keep airborne cameras away from missile silos, a number of which are in the area of the sightings. The Gazette said the Air Force had neither confirmed nor denied this.

The Morgan County Sheriff's Office, which hosted a meeting Monday with dozens of law enforcement partners, said the Air Force had denied involvement. The Air Force didn't immediately respond to CNET's request for comment.

Several agencies at the meeting with the Morgan County Sheriff's Office, including the FAA, agreed to continue investigating the drone sightings.

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

The FAA also said it's contacted unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test sites, drone companies and companies authorized to operate drones in the area, but hasn't been able to determine if any of these are responsible for the drone swarms.

The FBI didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

John Dermody, a lawyer at O'Melveny & Myers who previously was a legal advisor to the National Security Council, said solving the mystery might prove difficult.

"Drones can be operated with limited infrastructure and relative anonymity, and they can pose a real threat," Dermody said in an email. "Counter drone efforts continue to be a priority for the federal government, but solutions are often difficult to implement."

Last month, the FAA proposed a rule that calls for most drones to have remote IDs that would let officials track them in real time.

Though these drone sightings have prompted concern, unmanned aerial vehicles zipping across the sky could one day become more common. Companies like UPS, Amazon and Google have been testing drone deliveries. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in November challenged the industry to get tens of thousands of daily drone flights over at least one US city by 2028. But before they can really take off, people and politicians will need to be convinced that the benefits of drones outweigh privacy intrusions and noise.

Originally published Jan. 9, 1:46 p.m. PT.
Update, 3:47 p.m.: Adds mention of Colorado Springs Gazette report and of FAA's proposed drone-tracking rule.

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