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FAA, other agencies investigating mysterious Colorado drone sightings; remote ID rule proposed

Packs of drones spotted in recent weeks at night in NE Colorado
Posted at 1:10 PM, Dec 31, 2019
and last updated 2020-01-01 13:54:15-05

DENVER – Multiple divisions of the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies are investigating the mysterious drones that have been flying over eastern Colorado in recent weeks, and the FAA has proposed a rule that would require nearly all drones to be remotely identifiable.

The FAA announced the proposed rule last week in the midst of the sightings in several counties in northeastern Colorado and at least one in Nebraska . Residents there have reported to both law enforcement and news outlets that packs of drones have been seen in at least five counties flying in grid patterns after sunset in December.

Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Nestor has received reports of five to 10 drones flying about 200 feet in the air and other sheriffs have received similar reports. Last week, an FAA spokesperson told Denver7 that there were not drone reports in Colorado matching the description of the Lincoln County sighting, and other government agencies said they had no information about the drones.

The mysterious six-foot aircraft – which are flying outside of the times allowed for FAA drone operations – have led to wild speculation among residents about to whom they belong and their purpose, as no one has identified themselves as the operators. The sightings have turned into a national story, with ABC News and the New York Daily News running stories on them in recent days.

"It is kind of scary because out where I live, there are many people who have private planes," said Joseph Vencel, who works in Peetz in Logan County. "You never know when one is going to take off, and if they’re big drones, that could be a danger."

The proposed rule from the FAA, if adopted, would allow for the agency to collect and store certain data of the drone and operator – such as the drones identity, location and altitude – and for local, state and federal law enforcement and other federal agencies to identify the drones flying in their jurisdictions. It would also aid wildland firefighters who have often had to deal with drones illegally invading their airspace, which hampers firefighting efforts from the air, according to the rule.

FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor told Denver7 Tuesday that “multiple FAA divisions and government agencies” are investigating the drones and that the agency was “in close contact with local law enforcement” and determining what the next steps in the investigation might be.

There are 1.5 million drones and 160,000 remote pilots registered with the FAA, the agency said, adding that should the rule be adopted, it would be another step as it and drone operators and companies work to build a traffic management system that would complement air traffic control systems.

The FAA said the rule would apply to drones over 0.55 pounds that are required to register with the FAA already and to anyone operating foreign civil drones in the United States.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who is originally from Yuma, where some sightings have been reported, said he had spoken with the FAA about the sightings.

“I’ve been in contact with the FAA and I’m encouraged that they’ve opened a full investigation to learn the source and purpose of the drones,” he said in a statement.

Yuma County Sheriff Todd Combs also posted a lengthy message on Facebook to Yuma County residents on Tuesday afternoon in which he tried to explain what has been going on, what he is doing to get answers, and urging residents not to be fearful.

"There are many theories about what is going on, but at this point, that’s all they are. I think we are all feeling a little bit vulnerable to the intrusion on our privacy that we enjoy in our rural community, but I don’t have a solution or know of one right now," Combs wrote. "All I can say is don’t live your life in the fear of the unknown. Take life as it comes, be proactive when you can on issues and be thankful for the place we call home, Yuma County. I will keep you informed as soon as I hear anything."

The proposed FAA rule is open to public comment and feedback through March 2 before a final rule is possibly put in place.

Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to show the rule would apply to drones over 0.55 pounds.