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Mysterious nighttime drone flights over Colorado and Nebraska unsettle residents

Residents in rural Nebraska and Colorado have been plagued by mysterious, nighttime drone flights since mid-December, reports The New York Times — and there's not much the local law enforcement can do. In an article that looks at how states are handling the strange sightings, neighbors found themselves at a loss of options and full of questions. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it's illegal to shoot down a drone, even if it's flying on your property, so what can a concerned citizen do?

Report the sightings to the local police, suggested Sheriff James Brueggeman. He saw the drones in Perkins County, Nebraska, at night, on Tuesday. The sheriff heard rumors of people wanting to shoot down the drones, but he told The New York Times that he's been trying to encourage folks to call in with reports, instead.

"[Y]ou have to remember the part of the country we live in," he said to the reporter. "People here don’t like their privacy to be invaded."

The drones' suspicious behavior didn't do much to alleviate that feeling of being creeped on, either. One Nebraska homeowner was quoted seeing three drones hovering over her farm and home. A Colorado resident's dog has barked at drones flying overhead. Some were seen flying in a weird, grid-like formation. They reportedly came out by sunset and returned to an unknown location or person by nightfall.

"They’re high enough where you couldn’t shoot one anyway, but they’re low enough that they’re a nuisance," said Dawn George, a Colorado resident who saw the drones fly over her property. She told The New York Times that people have made numerous guesses ranging from a gas company conducting land surveys to criminal activity, but no one has come much closer to figuring out the truth.

"All the sudden, it’s just going to stop and we’re not going to have answers," she said. It's a possibility that's "very unsettling to a lot of people. It’s the fear of the unknown."

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Are people really this powerless against drones flying over their property? Well, yes, for now. Unfortunately for the worried residents in Colorado and Nebraska, drone technology has advanced much faster than government regulations, leaving citizens and law enforcement at a loss of what to do when they feel unsafe.

According to a 2017 report by the Pew Research Center, at least 8 percent of Americans owned a drone at the time the survey was conducted. And the number was predicted to increase as interest in recreational uses of drones grew. Despite the number of owners, however, the FAA in 2018 stated that they only had just over one million drones registered with the department—which is a fraction of the actual number of drone owners in the U.S. Much of this was due to a weight requirement, and consumer drones (most drone owners were hobbyists, Pew researchers found) that didn't hit that weight limit did not have to register with the FAA at the time.

With drones becoming more widespread, so do their uses. In late 2019, a man allegedly rigged his drone to drop explosives on his ex-girlfriend's property. In 2018, an Australian news broadcast reported on an increase in domestic violence and stalking incidents involving drones as surveillance. And a 2019 video clip of a drone owner in Brazil using his device to shoot fireworks at partygoers provided a glimpse of how far neighborhood spats could potentially escalate.

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It's illegal to weaponize drones in the U.S. But, without an easier way to trace the source of the drone, that's not entirely reassuring to people who might not like having one flying around in their neighborhood. Even the White House wasn't safe from a drone accident, despite the ban on drones in D.C.

Sheriff Todd Combs, from Yuma County in Colorado, posted a Facebook statement on Tuesday to try to ease the tension among residents. He noted that the reported drones seemed to stay 150-200 feet away from buildings or people, based on the footage he's received, and reassured the community that they're still actively investigating the issue.

He explained that officers didn't have much power over how the drones operated. "The drones are flying in airspace controlled by the Federal Government. The Sheriff’s Office does not have jurisdiction in the airspace above our county, as most of it is classified as 'Class G Airspace,' AKA, 'uncontrolled airspace.'"

Which meant, for the most part, that "aircrafts are allowed a lot of leeway to operate as they see fit."

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UAV Recon, a company providing power line inspection services through the use of drones, posted a Facebook statement to clarify and dispel some of the rumors that implicated their drones. Dusty Birge, the president of the company, explained that it isn't required by law to inform anyone whether someone is flying drones or not.

"[W]e do it out of public courtesy," he wrote. However, he noted that it was a little strange for the operator of the drones to remain quiet about their intent. Birge also chimed in with a warning against destroying any drones spotted near anyone's homes.

"[M]any believe they 'own' the airspace above their property [...] many claims I've read include 50'-300' from property owners." He reminded folks that this is not the case. "As a general rule, [based on] FAA laws and definitions... you do NOT." There is law, he cautioned, "that will be used in court if you decide to destroy one of these craft[s]" and can result in actual prison time.

The FAA has recently proposed new drone regulations that will help law enforcement easily identify the owners of these devices whether they're in the air or on the ground. But until those proposals are enacted, which could take years as they go through the process of approval, there's still no direct way to locate the owner or the origins of the drones. As the number of commercial and recreational drone pilots increases, strange drone events like this one could continue to pop up.

"Like in many other areas of drone regulation, the statutory and regulatory framework is lagging the technology," Reggie Govan, former chief counsel to the FAA, told The New York Times. "It’s just that simple."