Posted Friday, May 18, 2012, at 12:47 PM
Yesterday, several websites reported an apparent surveillance drone sighting in Elgin, Ill. The story, based on a video posted on YouTube (see below), spread as far as to Italy—and on the face of it seemed plausible, particularly given the FAA’s announcement earlier this week of a new, expedited approval process for use of drones by public safety agencies.
Perhaps why it gained some currency is that the NATO Summit is due to take place May 20-21 in Chicago, about 40 miles from Elgin. The user who uploaded the video, which shows what looks like a Predator drone soaring through clouds, noted, “I assume it's for the NATO summit this week as a security measure.”
Not too hard to accept, it would seem. The video has already had more than 100,000 views, with a majority of those commenting on it emphasising how certain they are that it is real. “I live in Chicago I've been spotting these things everyday!” wrote Thurlow92. “They're doing routine sweeps over Chicago and Chicago surrounding suburbs for NATO.”
Unfortunately for the believers, the facts just don’t stack up. A government source familiar with domestic drone policy was unequivocal, telling me, “There are no unmanned aerial vehicles being operated in the Chicago area and particularly no vehicles that look like the one in the video. The vehicle pictured in the video is a very, very large vehicle, and the areas these are permitted to operate are in unpopulated areas for the most part, or where there is not a heavy concentration of people.”
The Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection Agency are both known to operate Predator drones domestically—most typically for border surveillance. A DHS spokesperson, however, said, “The aircraft you see in the video is not a DHS/CBP aircraft.”
If any further confirmation was required to debunk the video, it was provided by the FAA, which hands out permissions for the domestic use of drones. An FAA spokesperson said, “No UAS [unmanned aerial systems] operators have asked the FAA to approve UAS operations in the Chicago area to support the NATO Summit, and the FAA has not approved any UAS operations in the Chicago area.”
Anyone with half-decent video editing software and a good eye for deception can cook up a hoax in a matter of minutes. The lesson here is that just because a video seems real and appears plausible doesn’t mean it is. It’s clear there are no Predator drones soaring in the skies above Chicago. Not yet, anyway.