Sightings of alleged unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, are usually united by a common element: they are visually witnessed by an unsuspecting person, who may or may not be able to fumble for a camera to get a so-so image.
But what if we didn’t have to rely on blurry photos, grainy videos, and dicey testimony of strange sights? What if we could detect and track possible alien visitors?
They already have sensors in places like the famous “Skinwalker Ranch” in Utah and the San Luis Valley in Colorado, and they’re in the process of finding sites in UFO hot spots like Oscura Peak, New Mexico and Chestnut Ridge, Pennslyvania — places where historic sightings or other reported weirdness have taken places.
The plan unites the worlds of amateur astronomy and flying saucers — and may provide what’s evaded the world of UFO investigation: hard data.
The UFO Data Acquisition Project
In 2014, Ronald Olch had an a-ha moment.
Olch, the systems engineer and founder of UFODAP, has worked on various UFO projects since he was in grad school at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1970s. Olch wants to track UFOs — and reasons his knowledge of computers and engineering is a way to get there.
Seven years ago, he came to a conclusion. “I saw the need for the those in the field doing research needing the equipment to do that at a cost point that they could afford,” Olch tells Inverse.
A current UFODAP kit includes a few features:
- A Pan-Tilt-Zoom camera equipped to do tracking of a potential object
- Other cameras to capture any phenomenon that comes their way
- An environmental monitor computer with gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, barometers, thermometers, humidity sensors, and more to understand any physical effects
- A variety of software that can perform functions like triangulate the position of an object based on camera observations, weed out false positives, or communicate with other sensors in the region
The goal swiftly refined by UFODAP: spread the sensors across the world and get as many as physically possible out there. This, Olch reasoned, would allow them to take in vast quantities of data 24/7, 365 days a year. (The UFODAP team is currently composed of Olch and media consultant Christopher O'Brien, who collaborate with the UFODATA Project.)
“The future is to use the great advances in technology that we're aware of to be able to do what science should have been doing all these years,” Mark Rodeghier, president and project scientist for the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, tells Inverse. Rodeghier is on the board of the UFODATA Project.
“And that is, go out and get good, hard data on UFOs.”
How does it work? — To be successful, Olch knew the sensor system would have to check a few boxes.
It would need to be fully automated (no fumbling for a camera when a light is in the sky) and work across an array of sensor types (some cameras automatically adjust for light levels, which can dilute the view of something in the night sky).
A UFODAP demo.
The initial demonstration in 2014 used a Raspberry Pi microcontroller, a hobby servo motion camera, and a USB camera as a proof of concept. The motion camera would detect motion, with the microcontroller instructing the USB camera, fixed at a 12x zoom, to track an object until it was out of the field of view.
Think of it as a homebrew Nest camera for the night sky. The point, in fact, was to use off-the-shelf components because advances in hardware, software, and optics were making it practical to build affordable sensors.
The alternative could cost thousands and thousands of dollars — the sort of project hard to do without big money to back it.
“At that time, we felt that the only way we were going to field a lot of systems because of those high costs was that we were going to have to form big organizations and have to raise a lot of money and so on,” Olch says. “And I felt that — why don't we take a different approach? Let's make a reasonably low-cost system that anybody that any reasonable person could afford, and let's get a lot of them out there.”
He teamed with another group taking a lower-tech approach — recording video and reviewing it later — to create the automated platform. This way, if an object moves, you capture it. If nothing is happening, there aren’t volumes and volumes of useless data eating up hard-drive space.
Where to hunt for aliens
Olch says there are about a dozen sensors out in the field currently.
Many of them are in geographical areas associated with UFO activity. For instance, the first site installation was in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, is the subject of O’Brien’s book Enter the Valley and the location of the UFO Watchtower.
A map is available of some of them here, and all are in the western United States. There are sites in California, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and one unit in Switzerland.
One site is near Skinwalker Ranch, a patch of land once owned by UFO enthusiast and multi-millionaire Robert Bigelow, a driving force behind the current UFO dialogue. Bigelow was instrumental in convincing former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to fund government research into UFOs, according to the 2017 New York Times article that ramped up the swell of interest in recent years.
Even though some data has been captured by UFODAP, what they’ve so far isn’t ready for primetime.
“I think we've captured a few little things but nothing that I want to go broadcast that there was something important there,” Olch says. The group hopes to crowdfund some revenue later this year to get more sensors in the field and more people interested in buying kits of their own.
The group also sells its own systems to interested parties, ranging in price from $469 to $3,851. For people invested in the hunt for the UFO truth, perhaps, it’s a small price to pay.
The Inverse analysis — While Harvard professor Avi Loeb recently announced his own initiative to hunt for UAPs with the help of observatories around the world, UFODAP is a little bit more of the backyard astronomer’s take. Asteroids are consistently discovered by citizen scientists — people outside the confines of a traditional observatory. The hope is that one day, the same can be said for UFOs.
There are, Olch says, a few UFO groups doing UFO investigations (like the Mutual UFO Network or Rodeghier’s Center for UFO Studies), but no unified approach. UFODAP could help build a consistent source of data for investigators. They’re currently raising funds for more San Luis Valley sensors.
“There's no manual for analysis of all of that in a way that draws out important scientific conclusions that leads us forward, and that's something we need to do, and I hope it'll happen this year,” he says. “So with the equipment in the field and with the methodologies in place, maybe we can start to make the kind of progress other sciences.”