On Aug. 23, a strange sight baffled locals in the English county of Leicestershire: Dozens of peoplereported seeing mysterious lights hovering in the sky around dusk high above open fields. The hovering lights, which were made up of at least three colors, were silent. They were too small to be any kind of aircraft or helicopters.
A local group of investigators from the Leicestershire UFO Research Society were soon dispatched to the scene. They reported that, "Several witnesses in the area reported observing a strange flying object hovering above the Barwell and Burbage Common areas of the region. Object was said to be carrying blue, red and white lights and behaving strangely."
Local UFO enthusiasts were abuzz with speculation, but after about a week of research the group concluded that the UFO "was in fact an illuminated quadcopter model being flown at dusk in a local park by a model aircraft enthusiast," according to their website.
Graham Hall, a spokesman for the group, was quoted by the newspaper Thisisleicestershire.com as concluding, "we are reliably informed the object that caused all the fuss on this occasion was a large model quadcopter. They are relatively new but basically they're model helicopters with four small rotor supports arranged in a cross shape. …They can have bright lights attached to them and can look very strange as they hover and circle in the night sky."
This is not the first time that small aerial drones have been mistaken for extraterrestrial spacecraft; nearly a year ago in Moscow a silent, unidentified craft was seen high in the sky above a protest rally. The UFO sighting was caught on video, and caused some protesters to wonder if aliens were watching them. Photos of the strange craft circulated around the Web depicting a dark body in two main segments roughly resembling a figure 8, with red and white lights. [Rise of the Drones: Photos of Unmanned Aircraft]
This "Moscow UFO" was eventually identified as a drone camera launched by the Russian Ridus news agency. Proof of the UFO's identity was provided in newspapers across the country in the form of published photographs taken by their high-flying drone camera at that event.
As aerial drones and quadcopters become more common and less expensive for hobbyists flying them in urban areas, it's certain that more of them will spawn erroneous UFO reports (either by accident or design) in the coming years.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.