Mystery military drone over Davis-Monthan AFB chased by two helicopters

jeffb

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And then surprise, there is this baby. Engineered and built right there in Tucson.


Ha! Give that man a cigar! Was going to suggest, given it's duration, that wings would go a long way to sustaining flight for the period described. Good find.
 

Dragon029

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There is too much latency for a remote pilot to perform agile maneuvers over a cellular or satellite connection. There has to be a command and control aircraft nearby.
I don't have time to listen to the full 1+ hour long radio log, but what exactly qualifies it as so agile that it had to have been manually controlled? And why does the control station have to be airborne?
It took off at high speed (like really high speed for a drone)
I've built a VTOL, 2-stroke prop-driven hybrid fixed-wing quadcopter that would comfortably cruise at around 65 knots and could hit close something like 80-90 knots (and it had pretty bad aerodynamics); I've also built a 2-stoke fixed-wing (with better but still mediocre aerodynamics) that could hit >100 knots.

Both of those aircraft I mention also had >1 hour of endurance and could be controlled via line-of-sight radio from several miles away with the radios operating well below their full capabilities in order to meet RF regulations (<30dBm EIRP instead of the 30dBm radio + 20dBi antenna EIRP). During long range operation however we'd also run a second drone as a radio relay, which also helped when controlling a drone that had landed ~7-10 miles away.

Here's a photo of a drone not dissimilar to ours; this one however being operated by Canberra UAV; whose members are key developers for ArduPilot:
dl5S9CA.jpg


Edit: Forgot to mention; the cost of building a drone like this (at least today in 2021) would only be in the ballpark of $1000-2000 USD, not including the cost of any imaging systems / video transmitters. Ballpark component costs to give people an idea:
Flight controller: $50
2x ~5000mAh 4S Batteries: $100
8x 500W 1000kV motors (just as an example): $150
8x 50A ESCs: $150
Balsa airframe: $400
Gas 2-stroke motor: $250
1/2 gallon fuel tank, etc: $20
8+ VTOL props: ~$30
Gas engine prop: $10
Telemetry / control radios: $200
High gain antenna for ground station: $50

Hovering for more than a few minutes would require an alternator which is trickier, but you can build one with a spare brushless motor, a gear set (a little aluminium machining required for mounting brackets), and probably $20 in electronics to rectify and regulate the output.
 
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TomcatViP

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Don't forget that there is mountain ridges in the vicinity. It would then be possible to have direct line of sight from an elevated point from far away (with a directional signal, more discreet and binoculars (that would explain the beacon)).
 
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Flyaway

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Bear in mind that these apparent unusual 'powers' of the drone don't really differ all that much of the things claimed of UFOs since 1947. The issue really is that those observing events as the happen from a limited perspective start to imagine all sorts of things and thus act as they see fit. How anchored any of that is in reality is open to question. So it seems, similar to UFO reports, the percipients convince themselves within a given premise as they observe something partially, and then their minds fill in the gaps.
The problem I have with these kind theories it always seems to assume no matter the experience of the observer or observers that they always must be in error.
 
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Flyaway

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And then surprise, there is this baby. Engineered and built right there in Tucson.

Is what sort of drone it was as important as to why it was flying in restricted airspace?
 

Kat Tsun

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Bear in mind that these apparent unusual 'powers' of the drone don't really differ all that much of the things claimed of UFOs since 1947. The issue really is that those observing events as the happen from a limited perspective start to imagine all sorts of things and thus act as they see fit. How anchored any of that is in reality is open to question. So it seems, similar to UFO reports, the percipients convince themselves within a given premise as they observe something partially, and then their minds fill in the gaps.
The problem I have with these kind theories it always seems to assume no matter the experience of the observer or observers that they always must be in error.

Yeah, shockingly enough pilots with a lot of flight hours are going to be wrong a couple times. So what? They're human. It's natural.

There aren't many instances where UFOs were genuine super secret military aircraft chased by helicopters (or F-18s). It would be embarrassing for the developers of super secret jet planes and contra-gravity tic-tacs if their secret machines could be bamboozled by some guys with a germanium lens camera. The only time I can think of off the top of my head a UFO turned out to be something serious was Roswell when a Mogul balloon crashed and the Army had to run out and rescue it before someone sold the radar reflectors and microphones for scrap to a Soviet spy.

OTOH there are plenty more where GCI controllers and fighter-interceptors spend about 45 minutes chasing a piece of chaff that is fluttering in the wind and wondering where the target is because that's a huge reflection and if your scope is showing something and my attack radar is showing something, where is the something, because I've flown over this thing six times now.

Which one is more believable? That these sheriffs were chasing a drone that was invisible to thermal, visual, radar, and near-infrared detection, but for some reason had a nav light on it that leads to a comical chase by the cops across the skies of Arizona because the dudes who are spying on a junkyard of old ass planes that are on Google Earth left a light switch on? Or that the cops were chasing Mars, Venus, or a distant star, and getting confused because things in the sky look like they're very close to you without any visible reference to the ground (as would be on a moonless night) and tend to wobble due to atmospheric distortion?

It's not a trick question. Most UFOs tend to be either celestial objects or mundane but unintuitive things like lost chaff strips.

The relative rarity of UFO reports to flight hours is a good thing. It means that pilots aren't bad at their jobs. Having a couple UFO stories is probably natural for a pilot, assuming they bother to remember them at all, but the guy who comes back from his job of being a fighter pilot with a Big UFO story every time he takes to the air should probably not be a fighter pilot. He's either lying or crazy.

The idea that UFOs are anything more than odd misreadings of an ambiguous situation (such as chasing a satellite or some stellar object on a moonless night, not knowing or forgetting due to tiredness that the sky looks funny without a land reference, and being wrapped up in your own thinking, etc.) is pretty dangerous, though, since it stifles genuine critiques and encourages ideological thinking.
 
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Orionblamblam

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I imagine a drone of that size could be smuggled into a country in parts through things like diplomatic luggage.
Or you just fly it in from a ship or across the border, or simply ship it in a container. I wonder if there might be some nexus with industrial strength narco drones.
You could probably put a drone control centre in a container.
You could put a drone control center in a briefcase.

Easiest way to get a drone like this into a country is to program it to fly nap of the earth/treetop level. Should be easy t avoid radar. And if the drone is occasionally picked up by radar... as we've seen, it could still easily get away. The invaded nation might suspect it's there, but finding it will be virtually impossible. It landed somewhere in the boonies and got picked up by two schmoes who put it into the back of a truck and drove off.

If the drone is mass produced, then there's no need to even go to that much trouble. Just smuggle it in with the tons of drugs and refugees that flow across borders like water these days. Some get caught... shrug, who cares, there're more.
 

Sundog

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And then surprise, there is this baby. Engineered and built right there in Tucson.


A vehicle with a top speed of 65 knots was out running helicopters? Were those pilots only experienced in how to hover? ;)
 

Kat Tsun

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I imagine a drone of that size could be smuggled into a country in parts through things like diplomatic luggage.
Or you just fly it in from a ship or across the border, or simply ship it in a container. I wonder if there might be some nexus with industrial strength narco drones.
You could probably put a drone control centre in a container.
You could put a drone control center in a briefcase.

Easiest way to get a drone like this into a country is to program it to fly nap of the earth/treetop level. Should be easy t avoid radar. And if the drone is occasionally picked up by radar... as we've seen, it could still easily get away. The invaded nation might suspect it's there, but finding it will be virtually impossible. It landed somewhere in the boonies and got picked up by two schmoes who put it into the back of a truck and drove off.

If the drone is mass produced, then there's no need to even go to that much trouble. Just smuggle it in with the tons of drugs and refugees that flow across borders like water these days. Some get caught... shrug, who cares, there're more.

There are far simpler ways to both smuggle drugs over borders and spy on Davis Monthan AFB. Neither require aircraft, just common sense.

Drugs are smuggled underground through tunnels (as all real smuggling is done) and spying is done with cameras like all those highly zoomed in photos of air force bases on the Internet. Narco subs are big fish sure but they are mostly used to bypass Central American land slog and bribing Mexican guards, where they go on to be smuggled into the US via tunnels at the border.

Davis-Monthan, and most US Air Force bases in general, are surrounded by tall natural borders like mountains or urban structures, where a random person with a telescopic lens can easily spy on the personnel from a tree stand or rooftop, if they so desired. No one does this (besides photographers looking for stock library revenues) because it's not necessary (most people who would care about what the USAF is doing at home have satellites for that job) and Davis-Monthan isn't a particularly important airbase once you get past its gigantic scrapyard of broken jets. There's just some C-130s and a few crusty old A-10s. So nothing interesting or cool to look at unless you have a flair for checking out museum pieces.

Even the basic premise is pretty silly: Being concerned about people spying on a junkyard (or wanting to) is kinda odd.

If I were a spy I'd be more interested at flying drones over something cool like Area 51, Plant 42, or Whiteman AFB, at least, where cool things live that people might be interested in looking at. Like RQ-180, B-21 prototypes, or the B-2 bomber force. Even then I'd just get on a tall building, or take pictures from an airplane like Aviation Week did.
 
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