In August of 2020 I was asked to participate in the ongoing research at Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. Season 2 of History Channel’s The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch series was being filmed at this time so any work I was going to do would be filmed for the series.
My task was to create digital twins of as many sites on the ranch as the schedule would allow. My plan was to create drone-based photogrammetric models, drone and ground based SLAM LiDAR surveys, and terrestrial laser scanning.
The project presented a few challenges including filming, flying, scanning during the COVID-19 global pandemic, the pressures of a tight filming schedule, and, of course, my preoccupation with the stories surrounding this property.
I cant say I was worried about anything odd happening to me or my gear. Instead I was HOPING something odd would happen as I’m a born skeptic for all things paranormal. I took part hoping I’d become a believer . . . hoping to witness something beyond our understanding of physics, the universe, etc.
I flew a BirdsEyeView Aerobotics FireFLY6 Pro for photogrammetry of a large portion of the 512 acre property . . . for those of you who are familiar with the property and/or the show this was the mesa flight. I flew a DJI Mavic 2 Pro for smaller, specific sites. I flew a brand new (at the time) DJI M300 RTK with the Emesent Hovermap for the LiDAR scans. I used a FARO s350 for terrestrial laser scanning of a few sites up on the mesa. I also had my Skydio 2 for some aerial filming. Pix4D, FARO Scene and CloudCompare were my tools for post processing.
I spent the most time with Erik Bard and Thomas Winterton. Erik and Tom are semi-full timers at the ranch so they are more accessible (aka local) than Travis and Bryant. Kaleb is a regular at the ranch as well. As a local law enforcement officer Kaleb’s stories about the area are really interesting. I heard more than a few hair raising tales over some adult beverages with the guys.
I bet those of you who know of the ranch are wondering if anything strange happened while I was there. Yes, a number of odd things happened.
At the time I was certain that the strange things that happened were simple to explain – caused by me going too fast. A five camera shoot will really test any complex workflow!
Film production is all about time. You’ve got to hustle, hit your mark, and nail your bits in as few takes as possible. The pressure is very real. Like everyone else if I do anything too quickly I make mistakes. Erik actually maintained a long list of things that happened to me and my gear. Any out-of-the-ordinary occurrences are meticulously documented at the ranch. I’ll just share a few . . .
The FireFLY is an amazing, VTOL drone. I flew the same preprogrammed, fully autonomous flight 3x times over the mesa with no issue. I flew it three times because I was stymied as to why no images were being written to the SD card. When we sorted that out (operator error & too embarrassing to admit here) and flew the exact same mission a fourth time – things went weird. The FireFLY completed the mission and then wouldn’t land – no matter what I did in terms of taking over manual flight control. When the batteries expired, it simply fell out of the sky landing in some shrubs, damaging a wing. That damaged wing, signed by yours truly, now hangs in the Command Center at Skinwalker Ranch.
The data onboard the FireFLY was intact but produced a strange anomaly right over the ranch house / command center buildings . . . a “bend” in the data. There was likely a reasonable explanation for this but due to the shooting schedule I had to move on rather than investigate what happened thoroughly at the time.
Then, out of nowhere, on a hot, flat calm day, a dust devil destroyed my tent I had set up over the ground control station for the FireFLY. I wasn’t there to witness this. I heard about it over the radios the crew use. The radio / telemetry antennae for communicating with the FireFLY fell over and broke.
While watching the FireFLY execute one of it’s flights I saw a bright flash, at altitude, over the command center. Likely a glint from an aircraft windscreen . . . but who knows?
The Mavic and M300 flights went perfectly. The resulting data is quite good. The FARO laser scanner worked perfectly as well and that data is excellent too.
Finally . . . when Erik walked the Hovermap through Homestead 2 the resulting data showed one of the rooms as blank. It appeared as though the interior of one entire room did not return any data. Very strange. Watch the show (Season 2 / Episode 4: There’s No Place Like Homestead Two) if you want to know more. From the image of Erik’s Hovermap scan of Homestead 2 (below) you can see we sorted the problem out. At the time however I was dumbstruck. This is just the kind of thing that in the moment, at that place, has you doubting everything and common sense goes right out the door. Don’t get me wrong – there’s something very odd about Skinwalker Ranch. Odd enough to keep me coming back to see if we cant get some answers.
I am having a blast working on this project. It’s truly a fascinating combination of entertainment and hardcore research . . . both things I’ve been drawn to forever. Sadly, on that first trip, nothing ran up my leg, scared the (bleep) out of me, or made me a believer . . . but that soon changed.
During my last visit to the ranch in March 2021 two things happened that I cannot explain. I got really dizzy for about an hour (this had never happened to me before) and one of my drones, the Skydio 2, a drone famous for collision avoidance, either exploded in midair or collided with something. This led to, on several occasions, Erik hearing me mutter, “This f**king place.”
The fruits of Erik’s and my labors: A 3D, color, survey grade computer model of the entire property are in the works and the early builds look stunning.
We brainstorm a lot about how to use this model. Everything from standard GIS mapping to serving it up to the public to aid in research, gaming, security, you name it is being considered. Exciting times ahead.
I continue to contribute to the research at Skinwalker Ranch. My thanks to the cast and crew and a huge thank you to Brandon Fugal and Erik Bard for having me back to the ranch to continue the work. The research continues whether the film crew is there or not and with each visit I get closer and closer to becoming convinced there is something going on at Skinwalker Ranch that is beyond our understanding.