Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 16, 2014

Quadcopters Mistaken as UFOs, Redux

Filed under: skepticism,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 4:44 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Short post, so I’ll dispense with the usual subject headings. Several months ago, I wrote a blog post wherein I surmised that many (not most, not all, but many) UFO reports might, in fact, be hobby “toys” (albeit expensive ones). “Toys” as in quadcopters and related flying remote controlled craft.

Numerous comments that I did not permit through were from some very ardent UFOs = aliens proponents, and others who entirely missed the point and were off-topic. Some comments that were submitted argued that no one could possibly mistake a quadcopter flying a few 10s m (~100 ft?) up with lights on the bottom as a UFO.

They are wrong.

And to show they are wrong, I provide two anecdotes. Before you scream, “anecdotes aren’t evidence!” the knee-jerk reaction in this case is wrong. The claim was made that quadcopters and related craft could not be mistaken as UFOs. Therefore any single anecdote where they are will falsify that claim.

The first example came after the second, temporally, but it’s the shortest. I was at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, last week, and it was night. I was waiting for the bus, while enjoying a lovely gelato (they use the word “lovely” a lot here). I looked towards the beach because I saw something odd out of my peripheral vision. I turned to see dancing lights, about five of them, hovering, moving slowly, then changing direction quickly, and generally performing acrobatic feats that certainly “no terrestrial craft could do!” Fortunately, it passed in front of a tree and so I was able to instantly recognize that it was a few meters away rather than thousands, and surmise that it was a quadcopter. I had fallen victim to the phenomenon myself.

The second anecdote is a bit more frustrating and emberassing because of what caused it. For my Australia trip, I ended up getting a DJI Phantom quadcopter because it was compact, sturdy, easy to travel with, and had a built-in holder for my GoPro camera. Unfortunately, I did not realize that there is a known issue with them suddenly deciding to fly away, no longer responding to the controller.

I was flying it the third night I was in Melbourne, just up in my friend’s sister’s tiny backyard, in the dense neighborhood of Albert Park. Was doing fine, was getting nice video and stills of sunset over the beach (~800 m away) and the city (opposite direction, several km away), when the quadcopter just darted off towards the beach. The control did not work. I’ll spare you the agonizing search and flyering and just jump to the fact that we DID get it back two days later. It landed on the garage roof of a house about 500 m (~0.3 miles) away, and the father and children recovered it about 10 minutes later. It now has my name and phone number in big characters on the hull.

But, while flyering and narrowing down where it landed based on neighbor reports, several said they thought it was a UFO. Yes, they used those initials, U-F-O. One even remarked that she had said out loud, “Wow, UFOs are real!” when she saw it flying overhead because all they could see were the green and red lights on the bottom.

So, there you have it. Again: I’m not saying that people who mistake these as aliens are stupid, that they are ignorant. Nor am I saying that every UFO sighting is a quadcopter or related craft.

However, I think that it’s very telling what happened in these two cases, and that it shows people need to be ever more careful in jumping to the UFO = aliens conclusion without considering all the much more likely – and very terrestrial – explanations.


October 15, 2013

A New Revelation on UFOs and More Evidence They Aren’t Aliens

Filed under: skepticism,ufo — Stuart Robbins @ 11:18 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


I tend not to write that much on UFOs = aliens. Of the now 25 posts (including this) that are tagged “UFO” on this blog, very few actually deal directly with the issue. The reason is fairly simple: There’s no new evidence, and what evidence there is, leaves much to be desired.

Let me be very specific about my terms here: When I say “UFO,” I mean an “unidentified flying object.” As in an object, in the sky, that appears to be flying, that is unidentified. When I say “UFOs = aliens,” I mean the belief that about half Americans share that UFOs are alien craft. Obviously the former is real. The latter is what people argue about.

Primary Evidence

The vast majority of UFOs = aliens “evidence” is in the form of eyewitness reports. UFOs = aliens researchers often tout these from “highly credible” witness despite those witness accounts claiming things that are impossible for them to know: Height, speed, and size of the “craft.” For details on why that is impossible, I will direct you to my Podcast Episode 2.

But, briefly, all you can do is measure the angular speed and size of the object, but without knowing the physical speed or size or distance, you cannot convert the angular measurement into a physical measurement. Ergo, anyone who states they saw a craft that was, for example, a mile wide, 100 miles up, and traveling at 5000 miles per hour is wrong (intentionally or not). They have no way of knowing if it was that far away or just something that was 100 ft up, 1 ft wide, and traveling at 50 ft per hour instead. (This is, again, unless they have an independent way of measuring the actual value for one of those or have a solid frame of reference, such as if it went behind a tree, then you know it was at least as far away as that tree.)

The primary other evidence for a UFO = alien craft typically is in the eyewitness stating they saw the craft do something that is impossible for terrestrial aircraft (which hopefully readers recognize as a classic argument from ignorance (you don’t know something, therefore you assume it’s something by default)). For example, the object would be seen to stop, or hover, or dart in various directions much faster than an airplane could.

Another common claim is that the craft is silent. Therefore, it’s either very far away, or it’s some sort of anti-gravity non-engine propulsion (usually one or the other is claimed by the witness, not either-or).

Very often, no physical craft is ever seen. It’s just lights in the dark night sky. And the lights are constant, not blinking like an airplane.

I’m Building a Toy

A few months ago, I saw some amazing video done by a guy who put a camera on a quadcopter and flew it over Niagra Falls. Since I do a lot of landscape photography, this seemed like a very neat new/different approach that I could get into: Fly the camera over the landscape and take shots from vantage points I couldn’t possibly get to. (Note that quadcopters have been around for nearly 100 years.)

I’m opting for a build-your-own approach and the parts are finally shipping (except for the flight control board, which is still on back-order). In the meantime, I’ve been learning how to fly on a mini version, the Blade mQX. With the Blade, I’ve been able to fly several hundred feet up, and my starting point is 6000 ft above sea level.

I’ve also been able to dart all over the place. For photography – and especially videography – you don’t want to do that, but it’s a good way to learn how to really control the craft, to do crazy things with it. And with something cheap like the Blade with several spare parts on-hand, it’s okay if I crash (and you will crash if you haven’t flown one before). Here’s just one of many videos on YouTube showing the kind of flying you can do with a quadcopter.

One issue with quadcopters – or at least something that I’m mildly worried about – is what happens if I don’t know which way is forward anymore? I’m getting bright orange propellers for the back and bright green for the front, but 500ft up, will I see that? So, I got running lights to put along the arms. Again, green and orange. That way, hopefully I’ll be able to see which way is forward and which is backward. That way, when I push the controller for it to go left, it goes left instead of right or away from me or towards me or in some other direction. Other people just put one light at the end of each arm, under the motors.

Put These Together: UFOs = Quadcopters

Take a look at this video of a quadcopter with a few lights flying at night. He went a bit out there in terms of lighting, but the effect is fairly clear: This is the kind of behavior described by many UFOs = aliens eyewitnesses:

  • The craft is silent (if you’re more than 100 ft away, you can’t hear a quadcopter).
  • The craft is lit.
  • It performs aerobatics.

You can also cut the power for the lights. You can zoom it up. You can bring it down. You can also build a hexcopter (6 arms) instead and light only three legs, giving you three lights for the typical “triangular craft.”

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying that aliens / ETs do not exist.

I’m not saying that some UFOs could be alien / ET craft.

I’m not saying that all UFOs are actually hobbyist heli/quad/hex/octo/etc. copters.

What I am saying is that there is an extraordinary claim (those lights in the sky that I don’t know what they are are actually extraterrestrial craft) that lacks ANY extraordinary evidence (eyewitness arguments from ignorance). That argument from ignorance is commonly of the form, “No terrestrial aircraft could possibly do what I saw that UFO do!” That argument from ignorance also frequently contains meaningless conjecture on the size, distance, and speed of a few lights in the sky.

What I am saying is that quadcopters and similar toys that a lot of people build and fly for fun are out there (for some reason my brother is now getting into it, and my dad’s been thinking about it for awhile, and now I’m building one), but many people have never heard of them (I hadn’t until a few months ago). And, if you put lights on them (which many do) and fly them at night for fun (which many do), they behave exactly the way that these eyewitnesses say their UFO did in those kinds of UFO = aliens cases.

What I am saying is that I would not be surprised if many UFO reports are actually hobbyist aircraft like these.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.