Feds: You need to stop flying drones over our nuclear facilities

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

If you’re already familiar with the name of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, you probably know it as the birthplace of the American nuclear weapons program. It remains one of our more secretive government facilities, with very tight security and access to it requires some of the higher security clearances issued by the government. But they’ve been having a new sort of security issue there in recent years. There have been increasing reports of drones entering the airspace over Los Alamos and the government issued a warning this week to any wannabe UAS (unmanned aircraft system) pilots that attempting to buzz the laboratory and take pictures will land you in some serious trouble. And you’ll probably lose your equipment as well. (Associated Press)

Drone pilots beware.

Authorities at one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons laboratories issued a warning Monday that airspace over Los Alamos National Laboratory is off limits.

The birthplace of the atomic bomb, Los Alamos lab reported that recent unauthorized drone flights have been detected in restricted airspace in the area.

Officials said if you fly a drone over the lab, you likely will lose it.

The lab’s senior director of lab security was more specific. He said that they have the ability to “detect and track a UAS (unmanned aircraft system), and if it poses a threat, we have the ability to disrupt control of the system, seize or exercise control, confiscate or use reasonable force to disable, damage or destroy the UAS.”

The lab isn’t saying how many UAS incidents reports have been filed and they won’t release details about their how their anti-drone security systems work (for obvious reasons). But looking at a map of the area, I have to wonder who these people are who are pulling this off and what sort of equipment they are using. The lab has a lot of land blocked off and there are some fairly tall ridges around it on most sides. You would have to have one with an impressive range to get there from the nearest public road and staying in contact with it to maintain control would be challenging. (Unless perhaps it’s a satellite system?)

The other option would be to somehow get past security and drive deeper into the facility or hike in there overland. Either of those would land you in some serious hot water before you even managed to launch your drone. And why would people be doing this? Pretty much everything at the lab is underground, so I doubt you’d see much on the property.

So were the things they detected really privately owned, commercially available drones? Perhaps, but there have been other recent incidents that raise far more questions. Back in February, the FAA recorded an incident involving a Customs and Border Patrol helicopter near Tucson, Arizona. They came across what they initially described as a “highly modified drone” in restricted airspace. They began to investigate but the drone managed to evade them. A Tucson Polie Department helicopter was dispatched to assist and soon both of them were giving chase. That’s when things got weird. Recently, The Drive obtained, via FOIA, the entire conversation between the two choppers and the control tower, which went on for more than an hour.

On February 9, 2021, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) helicopter encountered what was described as a “highly modified drone” hovering in controlled airspace above Tucson, Arizona. A Tucson Police Department (TPD) helicopter was called in to aid the CBP aircraft in its pursuit of the small aircraft, but the drone, or whatever it was, was able to outrun both of them as it flew through military airspace, deftly maneuvered around both helicopters with bizarre agility, and ultimately disappeared into cloud cover above the altitude the helicopters could safely fly. A police report previously obtained by The War Zone showed that the TPD crew described the drone as “very sophisticated/specialized” and “able to perform like no other UAS” they had previously encountered.

I’ve listened to the entire recording and there was something very strange going on. The CBP pilot initially described it as a “quadcopter,” but by the end of the adventure, it seems as if he just assumed that, having seen nothing more than one of the lights on the craft clearly. The “drone” led the choppers on a merry chase, almost as if it was taunting them. It eventually reached altitudes in excess of 15,000 feet and led them at least 40 miles from where the chase started, finally disappearing into the clouds. One of the helicopters eventually ran out of fuel before the drone ever ran out of “battery.”

They were debating what that thing was for quite a while and asking what sort of tech it employed. No battery-powered drone from Radio Shack would be able to perform like that. And why was it in restricted military airspace to begin with? Check out the story and the audio for yourself and see what you think because I certainly don’t have a good guess. But there was definitely something strange going on over Tucson that night.