Though the mystery surrounding the super-drone that out-raced and out-maneuvered officials chasing it over Tucson earlier this year remains almost total, details regarding that astonishing performance have dribbled out over time. Most recent of those were audio recordings of police pursuing the enigmatic aerial vehicle describing it as “the most advanced drone we’ve dealt with.”
More details on Tucson mystery super-UAV, but no new clues on what it was or who flew it
Full details of the incredible cat-and-mouse incident of police pursuing an amped-up drone can be found here, with updates available here and here. The crux of those, however, can be boiled down as thus: On Feb. 9, just after 10 p.m., a drone nearly collided with a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) helicopter above Tucson. The chopper chased the craft over a 70-mile course at speeds exceeding 100 mph, and altitudes of up to 14,000 feet. It was eventually joined by a Tucson Police (TPD) helicopter. During that hour-plus, serpentine marathon, the stealthy uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) repeatedly buzzed and trolled those official aircraft, and violated banned airspaces – including those of a local Air Force base and Tucson’s airport. Then, rather than exhausting its power source as officials had hoped, the drone vanished for good in a cloud bank (ironically, just as the police chopper was forced to give up the chase for lack of fuel).
Brett Tingley of The Drive’s War Zone site has done an outstanding job digging up information on the incident, and trying to get closer to learning the story behind the monster UAV. Now, thanks to a War Zone freedom of information request, Tingley has obtained two audio files featuring pilots involved in the incident. In those, the officials express evident awe at the remarkable capabilities the craft demonstrated, as well as a keen desire to apprehend the drone – and the person at its controls they felt had brazenly toyed with them.
Police chopper pilot pursing drone calls it “pretty freakin’ sophisticated”
The first audio file contains 70 minutes of live exchanges between CBP helicopter crew and Tucson air controllers during the chase. The second is of a call a TPD chopper pilot made to Tucson airport controllers on a landline after the police pursuing the super drone had landed.
The initial recording contains the the CBP team’s real-time descriptions of the craft’s incredible speed and remarkable maneuvers. Both of those made getting a clear look at it difficult – even when crew used nighttime goggles. They do manage to repeatedly fix the UAV’s position as being above Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and over a complex of fuel tanks adjacent to it. They also note the drone’s recurring effort to tweak and troll their craft, at one point positioning itself 1,000 feet directly above the helicopter’s blades.
The second, five-minute audio, made in the wake of the chase, benefits from a bit of pilot hindsight – and quite obviously grudging appreciation of what the UAV pulled off. The TPD officer tells a Tucson air traffic control staffer that the drone police were pursuing outran their chopper by maintaining speeds of 75 knots, despite a headwind blowing 30 knots. The surprised controller asks whether it might have been something bigger like a Predator UAV, rather than a smaller drone.
“Was definitely a drone,” comes the reply. “I assure you it was not a quadcopter, and it was the most advanced drone we’ve dealt with over the last decade here. Its abilities were pretty incredible, um, I just – I can’t tell you exactly its size… It’s not aircraft-sized.”
The TPD official then describes the amazing chops the mystery drone had demonstrated during their chase.
“I guarantee you it was nothing like a quadcopter from how long it was up,” he recalled. “It has to be satellite-driven because there’s no line of sight, there’s no cell phone coverage that could have dealt with that, so it has to be satellite-driven, which is pretty freakin’ sophisticated… He was watching us, the way he kept cutting back across right over the top of us, doing a half orbit, trying to prevent us from following him.”
The drone’s potency – and its pilot’s audacity – only sharpened the determination of police to catch them both. In vain, as we now know.
“I was really hoping and praying that he’d run out of juice,” he says. “Our plan was to land and grab it before somebody missed it or before something happened to it, because I really wanted to see what kind of technology that was. But we’re going to miss it tonight, I think.”
Perhaps authorities will have another day, or night to nab the mighty UAV during a follow-up flight. But given the work, money, and effort that must have gone in to muscling up that formidable a craft, it’s a fair bet the owner and pilot – which could feasibly be governmental – won’t be making capture an easy task the next time they take to the skies to tweak some noses.