Long Distance Drones, Maybe Foreign, as Possible UFOs.

Mick West

Staff member
While it is of course possible that some UFOs seen buzzing restricted military areas are aliens craft, a more likely possibility, at least in the last ten years, is that they are drones.

Russia, China, Iran, and other countries have historically spied on the US. There are also domestic threats (e.g. anti-globalist militias) who might want to keep an eye on the military for a variety of reasons.

So I thought it might be useful to open a discussion about what drones are available. What are the limits in terms of range, speed, and maneuverability? What do those drones look like? What's possible now that we know of, and what might be possible with a larger military budget? What does it take to eliminate the possibility of a drone?

Let's say you wanted to spy on the US military, how would you do it with a drone?

At the very simplest the drone needs to be deployed, travel to the target, try to avoid detection, acquire information, and return that information to the operator. Let's break those down:

  • Static land-based site - simply from somewhere within traveling distance of the target
  • Moving land-based - e.g. from the bed of a pickup truck - or more exotically, the top of a train
  • Moving air-based - launched or dropped from a plane or balloon. Could be very high altitude.
  • Boat - anything from a fishing boat to a cargo ship.
  • Submarine - the most obvious for spying on something like a battle fleet out to sea. Two variants:
    • Surface launch - launched from the conning tower, or even the deck. Problems with detectability
    • Underwater launch - the drone is carried to the surface in some buoyant container, and then takes off.
  • Quadcopter (or similar) flight
  • Fixed-wing flight
  • Hybrid flight (larger fixed-wing drops small quads for the last mile)
Avoiding Detection
  • Staying low - on approach, to avoid both visual and radar. Staying inches about the ground or water would be ideal
  • Moving fast - both avoids detection and some countermeasures.
  • Being small - The smaller something is, the harder it is to see or detect.
  • Disguise - like as a bird, or even an insect. Boats are not going to shoot down every seagull that comes close. At least not yet.
Acquire information
  • Video and Audio - most drones of any worth have a 4K camera. Probably not audio though, with the prop noise.
  • GPS - for following mobile units or ships. Could even land on the ship for a while
  • Radio and other sensors? Could even hack into the ship's WiFi.
Return the information - either physically or wirelessly.
  • Flying back - this doubles the travel time and halves the range. However, it allows the greatest amount of data to be returned with multiple 4K video files
  • Wireless transmission - this ensures the information gets back, even if the drone is destroyed or malfunctions. It also avoids the risk of the drone being followed back to the retrieval point, which greatly improves the security of the operation.


Active Member
Random thoughts

You could have the drone collect the information, store locally in a rugged storage device and then dump in the see with a beacon for retrieval.

The main problem is as you allude to small drones = short range, you can't easily launch a small drone and spy on a on say a carrier group because your drone is so range limited you'd have to have the launch platform and control too near the carrier group and it would be detected unless you are doing a whole "fake fishing trawler" Cold War thing.

Drone range is further limited by winds etc.

Long range drones are basically planes, so are detected and intercepted in the same way as spy planes, remember the US has overwhelming global traditional air superiority, probably why small commercial style drones are the new threat.

Commercial drones in the US and most other countries have software that has mandated GPS geo restrictions on where they can be flown and all military bases would be covered.

Land bases in the mainland US could possibly be spied upon by using drones purchased locally by agents inserted into the US and modified to remove the restrictions on airspace or an unlimited drone smuggled in somehow. However the areas around the most secret bases are patrolled and these bases are in the middle of deserts etc meaning you have the same control/retrieval issue. It's possible that these areas are no longer large enough to avoid some drones though.

Some overseas bases might be easier to spy on in this way though.

Quadrocopter style drones are also quite loud it strikes me that detection of them might be best done by using sensitive microphones and software listening for that drone whine.

Tiny drones that fly like insects and birds are on the research horizon and perhaps are further ahead than we are being shown but I think they are still impractical for now. Something that can soar on thermals like a vulture/eagle etc would be useful i'd imagine.

Mick West

Staff member
The main problem is as you allude to small drones = short range, you can't easily launch a small drone and spy on a on say a carrier group because your drone is so range limited you'd have to have the launch platform and control too near the carrier group and it would be detected unless you are doing a whole "fake fishing trawler" Cold War thing.
Which is not impossible. Indeed with the miniaturization of the equipment, it's plausible to just embed one guy with a disposable backpack of stuff, the data being returned on a 1TB micro-sd card

Overcoming the range aspect to some degree would be an underwater launch from a submarine. But there's an unknown there of how close they can get in the sub without being detected.

The point of the speculation is to see if certain things can be ruled out. Given time, creative minds can find unexpected solutions to problems that seem insurmountable. If a big sub can't get close enough to launch, then it could use an auxiliary underwater stealth vehicle (an underwater drone) for the last 20 miles. e.g. the Status-6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Status-6_Oceanic_Multipurpose_System

Publically there are several underwater launched drones out there, with the US Navy even talking about them

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Navy has developed and demonstrated a submarine-launched unmanned aerial system (SLUAS) for beyond line-of-sight targeting solutions and deployed it to the fleet in September 2020, the Navy’s submarine procurement admiral said.
Only eight months after the project was started, the Navy conducted an at-sea demonstration of the SLUAS from the Los Angeles-class SSN USS Annapolis, launching them “from periscope depth, control them out to tactically significant ranges — well beyond the line of sight,” Goggins said. “By doing so she was able to target and conduct a rapid simulated torpedo attack against a participating surface ship, in case the USS Charleston, pretty much at near-maximum effective range of that torpedo, by flying that UAV to obtain a fire-point solution after gaining that initial sonar gain.”

And they are talking about semi-autonomous very small drones that stay in the air for an hour.

The Navy requires the capability of a SLUAS with a 3-inch diameter form-factor to provide enhanced sensor, communication and cyber-security capabilities. The integrated system should be capable of launch from the US submarine fleet’s 3-inch Signal System Ejector (SSE) equipment. The SLUAS All-Up-Round (AUR) includes the integrated submarine deployment canister and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The AUR capabilities are limited by the physical limitations of the canister and payload, as well as by qualifications of the system for single mission, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). The folding wing UAV is a high reliability, submarine-launched small diameter aircraft capable of conducting ISR missions in contested ocean environments. Threshold performance of the air vehicle should include electro-optic capability with reliable target solution analysis. The vehicle should remain airborne for at least one hour, operate at ranges out to the line-of-sight radio horizon, and use a variable bandwidth encrypted datalink with at least 256-bit encryption strength. Objective requirements include the ability to operate in an emission-controlled environment and operate without constant radio communication links.

The AUR design requires the flexibility to allow for modifications to adapt to deployments of various unmanned vehicles and payloads over the course of the next five (5) years.

Mick West

Staff member
US Navy documents illustrate this type of scenario - but with more of a focus on coordinating attacks.
Submarine Launched Unmanned Aerial Systems (SLUAS) integration
and advanced development
• Combat Systems prototyping to enable integration of Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs) on Submarines
• Implementing the vision for UxS C2 via experimentation (ANTX) and advanced development (ONR)


(Organic UAV means an unmanned aerial vehicle that is assigned to a particular unit, and in this case probably means the sub)

Thinking beyond just simple "spying", such flights could actually be tests of an offensive system - like they are simply testing if the ship can detect the UAV.

Mick West

Staff member
Thinking about older cases, this 2007 document (Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2032) is a useful look at the then state-of-the art.


Seems like at the time the state of the art small was the Raytheon Coyote, which looks like the "Organic UAV". It's launched from "a standard airborne sonobuoy dispenser" (from a plane).

More recent developments discuss the latest iteration of the Coyote, jet-powered:
This contract provides for work on the Coyote Block 3 (CB3) Autonomous Strike—a rapid capability effort to achieve operational launch capability from unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and an unmanned underwater vessel (UUV).

The intended concept of operations (CONOP) and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) are to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and precision strike capability from maritime platforms. Additionally, the High Volume Long Range Precision Strike (HVLRPS) from USVs and Fires (HVLRPF) from UUVs demonstrations will leverage prior efforts including the Innovative Naval Prototype (INP) and progress on the Mobile Precision Attack Vehicle (MoPAV).

Interestingly the Coyote was originally designed as an anti-drone defensive weapon.


New Member
I think you're definitely onto something here. Lockheed Martin's Cormorant was the first to do this as far as I'm aware, tested in the 2004-2005 era: https://www.popsci.com/military-aviation-space/article/2006-02/navys-swimming-spy-plane/


However, the use of "drones" as a catch-all term needs to end. The vehicles described here are fixed wing. They are launched in a very literal sense, by the VLS tubes (originally meant for cruise missiles & anti-ship missiles), with considerable force & acceleration.

Current practical designs all follow the same "fold-out from a tube" design because that's what can practically survive such a launch.


This would not be a viable launch vector for quadcopters. Submarine launched unmanned platforms are thus unable to hover.

To launch a quadcopter from a submarine, it would need to surface. Any hostile submarine surfacing anywhere near the US coast would be detected almost immediately (from past incidents of Russian subs).


Active Member
It's worth holding in mind that this is all US sources, the budget, scope and power of the US military is vast compared to even other 'superpower' nations. They have a global reach with subs/carriers/satellites/aircraft etc that creates a CNC system that allows drones to be operated like that. Maybe China/Russia could attempt this kind of thing but even they don't have anywhere near the global reach the US military does.

Sure you can launch a drone from a sub, but the carrier group has whole sections designed to look for enemy subs in the area so you are now playing back into the hands of the US by using a conventional system as launch and control. Plus I see spying with conventional drones as a deniable thing could just be civilian messing around, you launch it from a nuclear sub well that's not deniable.

Either way there's a difference between a military operating drones as part of operations and a military backed but using deniable civilian tech effort.

So you have your disposable 'man with backpack' commercial drones which lack range and autonomy but are small enough to slip through the gaps in a system designed to look for conventional aircraft/subs etc. Then military 'spec' drones which have the capability to spy on a carrier fleet, but by necessity they are large enough or require conventional support to be detectable by current systems.

Maybe there's an in between system small enough to slip through the gaps and capable of operating at distance but it would be cutting edge even for the US. This is starting to sound like a modern day "UFOs are the Skunkworks secret black project/Aurora" theories though, which are not without merit.

I think I agree though UAPs for the USMIL are likely investigated to see if they might be enemy drones.


Why would secret spy drones emit light and be so visible?

Only logical explanation would if light was a necessary byproduct of their propulsion/power systems.

Propellers don't emit light.
Jets can be somewhat luminous at night but their range would be even more restricted. Not very probable.
Rockets emit light but range goes even lower.
Something exotic?


Who said they did? Maybe you meant to post in the Kidd thread?
Well those sightings are certainly examples of "drones emitting light".

If those were "foreign spy drones" then my assumption would make sense: they somehow need the source of the "light" to stay aloft. This could give us an idea of the kind of tech being used.

The only other option to explain lights in spy drones would be illuminating a target (although more stealthy means are available so it wouldn't really make sense).

In any case... The crucial limiting factor for drones is definitely range and endurance.

Balloons are one easy way of staying up in the air for a long time and they are used for surveillance not just by governments (https://www.wired.com/2015/09/balloon-spy-probe-deep-sweep/). They can be water launched, have small radar cross sections and don't emit heat.

Also they can inflate and deflate to change shape and could potentially land in the water and transition between air and water? With some electric motors and solar panels they could be self sufficient for a long time. Float along the sea most of the time and then take off when needed to take pictures etc. and land back in the water. Recharge batteries while floating in the water (even for a long time) and repeat.
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