Future Tense

Drones Are the New Flying Saucers

When people see something unexplained in the sky, they’re too quick to blame drones.

Photo illustration: A bunch of flying saucer-looking objects floating above an airport.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by kazuend/Unsplash; mik38/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

There’s something weird in the sky. It’s blinking, it’s hovering, it’s making loud noises. But how do you describe what you saw? Your answer is probably dependent on the time you live in. In 1561, you might have called the weird flying thing a heavenly portent. In the U.K., just before the start of World War I, you would probably say you’d been startled by an unexpected zeppelin. During the Cold War era, you might have called the thing a flying saucer of possible alien origin, or perhaps a secretive Soviet spy weapon: objects that fell into the category of UFOs. And in 2019, you might assume the weird thing twinkling in the sky is a drone.

We’ve been seeing a lot of weird things in the sky in recent years, as demonstrated by the recent uproar over purported drone sightings at Gatwick and Heathrow airports in the United Kingdom. The sightings at Gatwick closed the airport entirely for 36 hours during the holiday travel season. Yet despite the onslaught of media attention, investigations into these drones and their pilots have elicited little in the way of concrete results. The existence of the drone at Gatwick still has yet to be publicly confirmed. As I write this, the Heathrow drone sightings remain under investigation. It’s only the latest example of what I think of as “Schrodinger’s Drone”: a well-publicized burst of concern over a drone (or drones) that may or may not exist.

And there have been quite a few of these. In April 2016, the world was horrified by reports that a drone had smashed into a British Airways passenger jet approaching Heathrow Airport. A few days later, U.K. government officials stated that the object may “have been a plastic bag.” A pilot in South Australia thought his light plane had hit a drone. He’d actually come into contact with a hefty flying fox. In April 2018, flights at Auckland Airport were disrupted after airport staff mistook an errant balloon for a drone. There have also been incidents of mass but unconfirmed drone sightings, like the still-mysterious reports of unauthorized flights over landmarks and nuclear power plants in France in 2015. While these incidents are well-known, there are many that never receive widespread media attention. The FAA states that it receives “over 100 reports” each month from citizens who believe they’ve sighted a drone near a manned aircraft or an airport.

Yet many drone specialists are skeptical of these FAA reports. In 2015, the Academy of Model Aeronautics analyzed these FAA sightings and found that many of them were “vague,” some were reports of apparently legal flights, and only 3.5 percent described incidents where a manned pilot had a near-miss with an drone. Some reporters and experts (including the U.S. Government Accountability Office) have criticized the FAA’s collection of these reports, citing the iffy quality of the data and their inherently unverifiable nature.

These Schrodinger’s Drone incidents are also more common than the real thing. Take reports of drone near-misses or collisions with aircraft, which usually garner the most attention. While we’ve heard plenty of stories of supposed drone collisions or near-misses with aircraft, I was able to find only two incidents—in New York and Canada—in which the presence of a drone has been absolutely confirmed by investigators.

It’s possible that almost all of these unconfirmed drones were actually there, and we simply failed to find them, due to the (very real) current inadequacy of drone identification technology. But we should also consider the possibility that at least some of these maybe-drones never existed. Perhaps drones are taking the place of UFOs—in the extraterrestrial or mysterious sense, rather than the literal meaning of “unidentified flying object”—as humanity’s preferred catch-all explanation for weird stuff in the sky.

According to the two top UFO-sighting reporting centers, we’re seeing fewer UFOs than we used to, a decline that began around 2014. This decline coincides with the period when relatively advanced drone technology first became truly accessible to consumers. While we don’t have any evidence that the newfound popularity of small drones is linked to a decrease in UFO sightings, I have to wonder whether they’re a factor. Drones provide people with a good way of saying that they saw something odd in the sky without forcing them to publicly claim that they saw an honest-to-God UFO—which is something many people would rather not do because it makes you look weird, like someone to be edged away from at a party. Saying that you saw a drone, on the other hand? That makes you look like a concerned citizen.

While the term “unidentified flying object” is a perfectly neutral description of something you can’t identify in the sky, that’s not how most of us hear it. For decades, the term “UFO” has been associated with “big-eyed aliens that travel around in flying saucers.” Even the Cambridge English Dictionary defines a “UFO” as “an object seen in the sky that is thought to be a spacecraft from another planet.” Unfortunately, the hijacking of the reasonable term UFO by alien-watchers means that we lack a widely known, shorthand term for odd things in the sky that is neutral enough to encompass everything from plastic bags to planet-spanning alien warships.

We may also be seeing more drones because we are worried about the idea of drones, just like ancient peasants were worried by sky demons, 1896 Americans were bothered by the idea of mysterious flying airships, and just about everyone was worried about the idea of secretive, world-destroying military technology (and day-tripping aliens) during the Cold War.

The idea that at least some UFO sightings can be explained by psychological or social phenomena is known among ufologists (a delightful term if I ever heard one) as the “psychosocial hypothesis.” It means that if we see something we can’t identify, we’re likely to slot in whatever seems most plausible—and what seems plausible may change depending on current events and modern fears.

Consider the flying saucer, which remains the most iconic representation of what an alien ship “looks” like in the popular imagination. Flying saucers became an international phenomenon after Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting of nine mysterious flying objects near Mount Rainer in 1947, which many media outlets reported as circular in shape. The infamous Roswell, New Mexico, incident happened the same month, and breathless coverage of the two incidents was quickly followed by flying-saucer sightings all over the world. For many years, true believers seized upon this commonality in shape as evidence that extraterrestrial UFOs had to be real: Certainly people couldn’t all be imagining seeing the exact same kind of circular spacecraft, all around the world.

Except Kenneth Arnold never reported seeing a flying saucer. He had simply claimed that the distinctly uncircular objects he saw flew like a saucer “if you skip it across the water,” a statement that was then widely misinterpreted by the media as one that referred to shape. If people were seeing flying saucers around the world, it wasn’t because they were all seeing alien aircraft identical to those spotted by Kenneth Arnold—it was because they expected to see a saucer shape when they saw something odd in the sky. This conclusion is supported by this excellent visualization of UFO sightings from the National UFO Reporting Center. According to this data, sightings of the iconic, midcentury “flying saucer” aircraft peaked in 1970 and then began a precipitous decline. Think about it: When was the last time you saw a flying saucer in a movie?

We’re influenced by movies and media, and we’re also influenced by the times that we live in. Carl Jung, in one of his last works, speculated that UFO sightings symbolized “transformations of the collective psyche,” prompted by changes in the constellation of archetypes or “gods.” The sightings were, to him, symbolic of the Cold War as an age of fear and fragmentation, a shift from one era to another. British researchers concluded in a 2002 study that Cold War paranoia was behind many of the U.K.’s UFO sightings, a fear that worked its way to the highest levels of government. (Lord Mountbatten, the famous British statesman and naval leader, was a believer.) The mystery airship sightings of 1897 across the United States may have been influenced by a national obsession with the imminent arrival of manned flight.

Our current era is marked, like the Cold War, by political turmoil and deep-seated anxiety with technology. Perhaps these drone sightings are just a product of the unpleasant times that we live in, a manifestation of our fears. And drones, like flying saucers, are a rather concrete thing to be afraid of, a less abstract source of technological fright than subtle social media influence campaigns, or never-turned off tracking via our mobile phones. We’re frightened by the idea of drones spying on us, obstructing our travel, or even dropping explosives on our heads. We’re surrounded by news reports of attempted attacks with small drones by terrorists in Venezuela and in the Middle East, airport obstruction incidents like those at Gatwick and Heathrow, and general stories of people doing profoundly dumb and dangerous things with drones.

Manned pilots are understandably terrified by the prospect of a drone bashing through their airframe as they make their final approach into the airport. Being concerned about drones is decidedly (and understandably) mainstream, in a way that fear of being poked at by an alien probe never has been. Nor are these fears inherently foolish or ridiculous. They are often grounded in valid concerns about the unchecked spread of technology. While there were no zeppelins flying over the U.K. in 1909, armed zeppelins really did arrive in the U.K. during World War I, an unhappy validation of the fears of jumpy Londoners. Sometimes there actually is a drone over the airport.

An essential part of being human is our drive to ascribe meaning to things that we cannot adequately explain, and all of us do it, including the most brilliant and believable among us. The best we can do is to mitigate this natural tendency, because while it is understandable, it can be counterproductive. If we jump too quickly to the assumption that something weird in the sky is a drone, we might miss out on other explanations, like errant weather balloons, plastic bags, or, sure, alien spacecraft. An overemphasis on one kind of threat or problem can lead us to miss other problems.

While we absolutely should be concerned about the malevolent use of consumer drones, we shouldn’t become so paranoid about these dangers that we start seeing them everywhere, or responding to them in overblown ways. The Gatwick drone incident has provoked serious soul-searching among airport controllers and security experts about the need to invest in better counterdrone technology, and for the U.K. government to give police wider powers to take down and identity malevolent drones. That’s a very good thing. However, incidents like the event at Gatwick should not be used as rationale for banning consumer drones entirely, or restricting their use to an unreasonable degree —thereby losing out on the well-proven benefits of the technology for society. Nor should they be used to cast suspicion on everyone who uses a drone for any reason at all.

Perhaps the clearest solution to the conflation of drones and UFOs comes from technical drone identification methods, which might truly solve the problem of Schrodinger’s Drone. A lot of trouble could be avoided, at Gatwick and elsewhere, if we had better ways of knowing for sure that the weird thing we’re looking at is a drone, paired with better techniques for identifying the pilot responsible. One thing is for sure: Weirdness in the sky will always be with us. We just need better ways of determining what sort of weirdness we’re dealing with.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.