Drones and UFOs: An Incomplete History [Part One]

Drones and UFOs: An Incomplete History [Part One]
Photo by Bilal O. / Unsplash

In recent years, drones have become a more prevalent part of UFO discourse. The topic comes up frequently because drones are a quickly developing class of technology that can be confusing to observers. In addition to becoming more sophisticated they are also increasingly accessible. Drones can maneuver in abrupt and unusual ways, and are often small and difficult to reliably spot. Add all of this together and it is somewhat obvious why drones come up in relation to UFOs.

The purpose of this piece is not to argue that all unknown aircraft sightings are drones. Instead, the objective is to clarify the history surrounding the strange partial fusion of the two topics, and to describe some recent developments in drone technology and their security implications. This history is necessarily incomplete.

Drone technology has been the subject of considerable state-level interest for decades, including simple drones developed as early as the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s and 1970s, drones were beginning to conduct reconnaissance.  Much of the military and intelligence work regarding drones remains behind a veil of secrecy. Over the years the technology has perhaps inevitably proliferated to the civilian world and among competitors. The last few years of increasingly frequent news about drones is a bit like the tip of an iceberg peeking out of the ocean; that news represents only the visible fraction of a much larger story.

Many if not most readers of this blog are primarily interested in UFOs. As such, we'll begin with the recent peak of drone vs. UFO debate: the "flying pyramids" media storm earlier this year. We'll then rewind to see how drones have played a key role in the messaging of former officials who have spearheaded the modern UFO movement. We'll juxtapose that messaging with background on drone security issues, before examining the most recent push for a new government office to investigate UFOs as proposed in the Gillibrand amendment.

Drones or Flying Pyramids?

The UFO/drone conversation became increasingly contentious earlier this year after news broke of a 2019 incident involving an apparent drone incursion. During the events, multiple aircraft described in Navy records as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) surveilled warships off the coast of Southern California over a period of several days.

Filmmaker Dave Beaty initially broke news of the event on social media. My colleague Marc Cecotti and I added to the story in an intensive research project that leveraged FOIA and large datasets of ship location metadata. Our story also covered the ensuing investigation and institutional response by the Navy, which focused on conventional drones. Responding to this reporting, the Chief of Naval Operations later confirmed that the aircraft were not successfully identified, and that there had been other similar incidents in the past.

Over the spring and summer, filmmaker Jeremy Corbell, most known for his films about UFOs, released apparent footage of the events. He also alluded to and showed small snippets of purportedly classified documents given to him in a leak. Corbell made a large number of energetic media appearances, declaring that the aircraft were in fact craft piloted by non-human intelligence. Due to the roughly triangular shape in some of his released footage, the aircraft were now described as "flying pyramids."

A Pentagon spokesperson quickly confirmed that the Corbell footage was taken by Navy personnel, but to my knowledge never confirmed if the video pertained to the specific nights of the most significant events. The spokesperson declined to comment on the provenance of the classified documents. The same spokesperson also claimed that there was no investigation into the circumstances of the leak.

For his part, Corbell maintained that he obtained his information in an "anonymous data drop" that he had vetted using an unnamed network of military and intelligence sources. Throughout the spring and summer Corbell accumulated a number of blog and Instagram posts that enumerated details about the events, but without supporting evidence beyond his claims that the details had been vetted by knowledgeable sources.

The use of anonymous sources has long been a contentious issue in UFO circles, where they have been regularly used to make heady claims. Although anonymous sources are regularly used in journalism, particularly defense journalism, there are widely recognized rules on how to responsibly use them. While it was not necessarily problematic in and of itself that Corbell relied on anonymous sources, the lack of supporting information led to occasional confrontations with others covering the story – myself included.

Most in the media took the limited acknowledgement that the film footage was taken by military personnel to be more or less an endorsement of Corbell's claims writ large. The Pentagon continued to walk a very narrow line of recognizing that the videos were taken by military personnel, but making no other statements – either endorsements or denials – of increasingly strong claims about the supposedly extraterrestrial craft.

Over time, many aspects of Corbell's interpretation of the footage were challenged. The triangular lights were explained to likely be an optical effect caused by a night vision goggle aperture. Other footage that seemed to show an object going into the water was highly ambiguous and may have simply been a balloon or drone impacting water or flying over the horizon. Most of the rebuttals to these explanations have tended to center on arguments from authority: secret sources are sure that something truly mysterious has happened, and it is impossible that the Navy's sophisticated sensor technology could struggle to detect conventional drones.

Understandably, the story became a kind of Rorschach test in the minds of those that followed it. For many people interested in UFOs, the story seemed to be a rare confirmation for their beliefs. The media found an exciting and easily packaged story that could be retold with a few brief clips. Corbell enthusiastically promised yet greater revelations to come. As the story unfolded, official documents were overlooked in secondary and tertiary coverage, even though they described in detail the Navy investigation's attempt to match the sightings with civilian drone use, or with possible military drone activity.

In essence, while the media emphasized a few brief clips that had no real context, it overlooked that the Navy had scoured its own drone activity logs and interviewed civilians in the vicinity who were believed to own drones. Emails from the investigation do not depict a Navy that had unambiguous evidence of extraterrestrial visitation; it instead shows a clearly urgent investigation focused on conventional technology that quickly fanned out to include the Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Readers interested in the details of the investigation can find them towards the bottom of our original piece on the event.

When asked directly if anything about the event indicated extraterrestrial activity, the Chief of Naval Operations told reporters "I have no indications at all of that." These details were waved aside by many who claimed that high level officials would never speak honestly about an alien encounter – even while the Pentagon's very narrow "confirmation" was seen as endorsement of Corbell's version of events.

Longtime observers of the drone issue saw things differently. They noted that while the performance of the drones was impressive, they were not truly beyond the bounds of technical possibility. Moreover, drones had been increasingly used as surveillance tools, particularly in the naval context. It seemed plausible that a competitor like Russia or China was simply using drones in an attempt to gather valuable surveillance data. Defense journalist Tyler Rogoway, who has chronicled both the drone issue and the resurgent defense interest in UFOs, warned that the Pentagon was overlooking a very real risk that drones could be used to exploit national security vulnerabilities.

Meanwhile, public affairs representatives refused to answer substantive questions. FOIA requests have been delayed beyond their already slow pace. It became increasingly impossible to penetrate a wall of silence regarding the underlying facts of the incident, while the door to speculation had been left wide open by the government's odd partial acknowledgment of the ambiguous footage.

In UFO circles, the mention of drones became synonymous with attempts to "debunk" or to rationalize away mysterious sightings. It seemed as if drones were just a convenient excuse, a way to deflect what seemed to be a much older mystery – one that couldn't possibly be explained by modern drones alone. Drones and "debunking" became nearly synonymous in many quarters of the UFO conversation.

Drones and UFO Advocacy

News of the 2019 swarm event in Southern California sparked greater controversy about drones and UFOs, but it didn't start the conversation. The connection between the two topics did not begin with skeptics who turned to drones to explain unusual sightings.

In fact, the modern connections between drones and UFOs were directly made by the two individuals most involved in the modern push to address UFOs: Luis Elizondo and Christopher Mellon.

Luis Elizondo is a former Department of Defense employee who claims to have led a Pentagon program to study UFOs. He has been supported in those claims by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has also acknowledged sponsoring efforts by the Defense Intelligence Agency to study both UFOs and the paranormal. Other supporting documentation on these claims and exact details about the program have remained scarce, and are frequently debated even within UFO circles.

Elizondo resigned his position in 2017 in protest over the Department of Defense's lack of attention to UFOs. Shortly afterwards, he joined musician Tom DeLonge's To The Stars Academy, a private company that intended to simultaneously create entertainment products and to advocate for the government to release what it knows about UFOs and aliens. Elizondo's resignation letter can be found below:

https://www.history.com/news/unidentified-ufo-investigation-documents

Prior to his resignation, Elizondo coordinated with another former DOD official, Christopher Mellon. Importantly, Mellon served for years as staff director on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and was previously the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. He is also a member of the prominent Mellon family, intimately connected to banking and industrial concerns.

In the lead-up to a New York Times story revealing the existence of a Pentagon program (incidentally, now seriously questioned by the first-hand account of those that actually ran it), Mellon played a vital role in passing the famous video footage of purported UFOs to the press.

Earlier this year 60 Minutes covered the events and summarized them this way: "He [Mellon] grew concerned nothing was being done about UAPs. So, he decided to do something. In 2017 as a private citizen he surreptitiously acquired the three Navy videos that Elizondo had declassified and leaked them to The New York Times."

Here you can see Christopher Mellon describe his partnership with Elizondo. In his recollection, he speaks of getting the public interested in the topic in order to create increasing political pressure to overcome the stigma and inertia surrounding the UFO topic:

Indeed, as in the 2019 "flying pyramids" story, video played a key role in garnering public interest. In the modern media, a few seconds or minutes of video footage can be played repeatedly to audiences. While hundreds of pages of FOIA documents might be overlooked by impatient audiences, images and sound command attention.

Luis Elizondo sent this email as part of the process of attempting to get the videos released in August 2017, just prior to Mellon obtaining them "surreptitiously" in a parking lot:

https://www.esd.whs.mil/Portals/54/Documents/FOID/Reading%20Room/UFOsandUAPs/18-F-0724_ATTN_Russo_DOPSR_Request_Part%203.pdf?ver=2019-08-19-123643-950

In the email, Elizondo explained that the purpose of declassifying the videos was to create a repository of unmanned aerial vehicle data. Elizondo laid out that the issue is an obvious threat, but no central resource existed to analyze it. The focus here is squarely on drone threats, with no mention of UFOs or aliens. The explanation for this misdirection is that Elizondo couldn't possibly admit that his purpose was to obtain UFO videos due to stigma; drones would have to be the justification.

https://www.esd.whs.mil/Portals/54/Documents/FOID/Reading%20Room/UFOsandUAPs/18-F-0724_ATTN_Russo_DOPSR_Request_Part%203.pdf?ver=2019-08-19-123643-950

In fact, the circumstances surrounding the release of the videos later came under review by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. The inquiry determined that Elizondo's request was never formally granted, and that reason for publication was misleading. However, because the videos were technically unclassified in the first place the matter was closed.

https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/6827602/2020-01420-F-DOCS-2.pdf

However, this was not the only time drones came up. In interviews with former astronaut Terry Virts, Mellon recounted a series of stories that included incidents clearly involving drones and not UFOs. In an October 2021 blog piece, Mellon prominently noted that some of the unknown aircraft "could be next-generation Chinese or Russian drones capable of eluding U.S. air defenses...[C]learly, the threat of small, unmanned aircraft with concentrated intelligence and firepower capabilities needs to be taken seriously."

Online, Mellon asserted that while he holds aliens as a top contender for the famed Nimitz case, he was uncertain when it came to the 2019 events:

Again in June he reiterated that the range of possible explanations included "near-peer drone technology."

In short: it is not that journalists, skeptics or people hostile to the extraterrestrial hypothesis have used drones to debunk or explain away UFO sightings. Instead, the key architects of the modern UFO movement have used drones to motivate government action. The references to drones begin with Luis Elizondo in 2017, and continue through 2021 with Christopher Mellon's current argumentation to Congress.

Congressional Action

Speaking to 60 Minutes, Mellon described a clear strategy for influencing government. First, create intense interest among the public. Then with their support and pressure, lobby Congress. Once Congress begins to act, it will become a self-sustaining process that will yield further political action.

This is precisely what has happened. To The Stars Academy helped produce two seasons of a History Channel program, helmed by Elizondo and Mellon. By May of 2019 Christopher Mellon published "draft language" for Congress to consider in requiring a formal report on UFOs. Elements of that language were indeed incorporated in legislation, ultimately culminating in this summer's preliminary report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The report offered no definitive conclusions.

In July of this year in a piece titled "Suggestions for Congress on the UAP Issue", Mellon outlined policy recommendations to create an "Office of Strategic Anomaly Resolution" to study UFOs. Moreover, he recommended establishing a "national panel of independent civilian scientists." Within the piece, he cites Dr. Avi Loeb of Harvard as supporting the recommendation.

On November 4th, Senator Gillibrand of New York proposed exactly this in an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Her amendment would create an "Anomaly Surveillance and Resolution Office." It also has a prominent advisory committee, roughly comprised half of government agency appointees and half of outside scientists. Her proposal outlines that NASA would have three seats on the committee. So would Dr. Loeb's Galileo Project. A week before the proposed amendment, the Galileo Project announced that they were adding Christopher Mellon and Luis Elizondo as "research affiliates."

The Galileo Project was not the only UFO-friendly organization listed in the proposal. The Scientific Coalition for Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena, a group of scientists and engineers interested in UFOs, would have two seats on the committee, equal to that of the Federal Aviation Administration.  

In essence, Mellon has twice drafted language that was later substantively implemented by Congress. In this latest instance, he has also specified an advisory panel made up of organizations that he has personal ties to and influence over.

Of course, along the way, drones found their way into the amendment language:

   (M) In consultation with the Chairman of the Nuclear 
 Regulatory Commission, the number of reported incidents, and 
 descriptions thereof, of unidentified aerial phenomena or 
 drones of unknown origin associated with nuclear power 
 generating stations, nuclear fuel storage sites, or other 
 sites or facilities regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory 
 Commission.

Predictably, the mere introduction of the amendment attracted powerful interest and renewed hope in the UFO community. Mellon publicly praised what appears to be his own legislative ideas, making it clear which proposal UFO activists should support in case they could not already discern his involvement:

"Drones Aren't A Problem For Us"

While the threat of drones have been useful to justify the release of videos and to motivate congressional action, too much focus on drones has at times been a liability for the UFO movement. Recall the story of Navy vessels being harassed off the coast of Southern California and the fight over "flying pyramids" versus drones.

In April of 2021, Elizondo weighed in on the debate between drones and exotic craft. He told longtime UFO reporter George Knapp that "drones aren't a problem for us," and that it should be straightforward to recognize conventional aircraft.

Responding to Elizondo's statements, defense journalist Tyler Rogoway characterized the claim as false and out of step with Navy thinking on the issue:

Indeed, in recent years, the Navy has spoken in increasingly stark terms about the "urgent" need for drone defenses. In background interviews Naval surface warfare officers explained to me that there has been ongoing concern for years that drones and even helicopters could be used to rapidly ambush unsuspecting ships.

Prior to these statements, Elizondo emphasized that UFOs and drones are indeed mixed together and require well-funded capabilities to differentiate between the two:

It is unclear why a week prior to stating that it is simple to detect and differentiate drones from UFOs Elizondo argued that significant funding was needed to do just that. However, in Elizondo's argumentation the mixing of the two is not only a reason but in fact the precise reason why serious resources must be expended.

To sum up, before the world knew Luis Elizondo's name, he was using security arguments about drones to obtain videos that would be used to add visual impact to a deliberately planned public campaign strategy. Throughout that campaign, drones were selectively used to bolster the seriousness and credibility of a potential threat. While drones were largely helpful in speaking to an audience of experts and legislators, they have also simultaneously been a messaging liability to wider audiences. In moments where drones were being taken too seriously and undermining the focus on aliens, their threat was downplayed. When it came to justifying resources, the somewhat imposed confusion between the two was leveraged as a further impetus to differentiate between them.

The second part of this story can be found here.