Expert Says Technology Exists to Identify Mystery Drones

Mystery drones have been spotted across Nebraska. (NET News file photo)
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January 10, 2020 - 6:45am

As the Federal Aviation Administration takes a closer look at who’s operating those mystery drones sighted across parts of Colorado and Nebraska over the last few weeks, one drone expert has some ideas on what could be happening. NET’s Jack Williams spoke Victor Huang, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and part of the school’s Aviation Institute.     

Jack Williams: So we can’t see these clusters on radar or the FAA has no way of finding out where these things are coming from? There’s no technology like that right now?

Victor Huang:  We do have technology to identify the drones so far, however given the limited coverage of the technology, those technologies do not cover the whole country so far. So, that’s the reason we can’t identify those drones.

Williams: How advanced have drone systems become and is it easy to believe that a group of drones of this size could be flying in formation over long distances?

Huang: Absolutely. Technology-wise, it’s totally possible to have hundreds of drones to fly at the same time. We call it swarm flying. We have a lot of good success and examples of swarm flying with hundreds of drones for drone airshows and things like that.

Victor Huang with the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Aviation Institute. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Williams:  There are rules for operating drones, including in some cases line of sight, you need to be able to see the drone or restrictions on flying at night or flying over crowds or populated areas. Does it appear whoever is operating these drones is violating federal law?  

Huang: So far, I think it’s premature to say they are flying the drone illegally before any official investigation result comes out. FAA is managing all civilian use of drones in the U.S. and we have certain types of requirements to regulate the drones in terms of the location, maximum altitude, time and range. For example, you can only fly the drone below 400 feet above ground level and you cannot fly the drone within five miles of an airport. You can only fly the drone in the daytime and you have to maintain a visual line of sight while you fly the drone. That doesn’t mean you can’t fly the drone at night, but you will have to get special permission from the FAA.

Williams: So theoretically, whoever is doing this could have those permissions and could be allowed to fly at night, could be allowed to fly over areas that maybe others wouldn’t be able to fly over?

Huang: Correct, however, FAA is supposed to know those operations because the FAA is the single unit in the U.S. to permit the special operations in those cases.

Williams: What is your best guess on what this might be and why has nobody come forward if this is something legitimate?

Huang: I definitely encourage people who are operating those flights should stand up, to be responsible for what they are doing and maintain transparency between the public and the person responsible for the flight. That would address the concerns from the public. However, we are like everybody else and we have no clue. Another thing that we have to remember, FAA only manages the civil-use drones. That excludes military purposes.     

There have been dozens of Nebraskans who’ve alleged to have seen the drone formations. Earlier this week Saline County resident Joel Weber watched a line of the aircraft travel over his feedlot around 7:30 at night. NET’s Bill Kelly spoke with Weber, who’s also a licensed pilot.

Joel Weber: I saw them right as they came over the top of our place and then they kept going east. One of them stops maybe a quarter of a mile to the east and the rest of them kept going, and then we're out of sight. But the ones sat there hovering for a little while. That's why I thought they were probably some sort of rotor-craft versus a fixed wing because the one did sit there and hover.

Bill Kelly: What does it look like and what does it sound like? What are you actually seeing?

Weber: They're very quiet. You could hear a hum, I've been around drones a little bit before and it's just a slight hum, I would estimate they were three or 400 feet off the ground. So it's not like they made much noise. I would have never heard it from the house. They have flashing red and green lights just like they're supposed to at night and then there was a white light on it in addition to the red and green.

Kelly: These are over your property at this point. They're making observations. How does that make you feel?

Weber: Well, I own the ground. I don't own the air space. I'm not a conspiracy theorist. If they're taking pictures, I guess I'd be a little bit more up in arms about it. I mean, for all I know it, they could be getting everybody all fired up about a movie to release.

Kelly: It’s like a publicity stunt?

Weber:  Exactly. I mean, how does anybody know? It was neat to see. As of right now, I don’t feel threatened at all. .

Kelly:  But you are also a small aircraft pilot. As a matter of air safety, how does this make you feel to have these things a big unknown right now?

Weber: Number one, they've got some parameters they're supposed to be following. You know, obviously, if I'm going to take off in the evening when they've been flying, I definitely am going to be hyper-aware of the situation. At the same time, they're flying, as far as I know, like a VFR flight where you can pretty much go wherever you want, within reason it's your responsibility to let other aircraft know where you're at. I would sure hope whoever is behind all this would keep safety in the forefront, especially around any airspace as far as an airport. I guess I'm always a person that doesn't rush to ton of conclusions before I get all the facts and then I there's enough conspiracy theorists in this world. I don't need to become one of them.                                                                                      



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