UPS delivered part of a $350,000 government research drone to a random college kid, and I somehow ended up helping them get it back.
A military version of the Puma drone. Image: US Marines
On Monday, a Reddit user mistakenly received parts to a $350,000 US government drone in the mail. The whole thing was, most likely, a UPS mixup. Somehow, I found myself in the middle of the effort that ensued to make sure the federal government got the thing back.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration most likely will have the drone back in its possession today, according to the people I spoke to at UPS, NOAA, and the college student who accidentally got the thing mailed to him—components of a Puma UAV that the agency uses to monitor wildlife and seaside environment health.
Image: Redditor Seventy_Seven
I probably shouldn't have had to: Looking at the picture, you'll probably notice the huge tag that tells you what to do if you find the thing. The kid didn't do that, but I tried calling the number listed and was met with an insane phone tree and didn’t come anywhere close to actually reaching anyone, so I can't really blame him.
During a Reddit AMA last night, the student said that he "totally should have called that number first, and this could have been sorted out. Luckily, didn't seem mad at all, they were just happy they could go on with their study. Generally, I was an idiot."
Anyway, a NOAA spokesperson emailed me after I'd made the connection: “Thanks by the way! We'd hate to lose it," he wrote.
Last night, I heard from the student again, who described the whole experience:
I pack this giant crate into my tiny car, and drive a few minutes to the UPS store. I step inside and tell the guy at the counter that I had a misdelivered package in my car, and that I'll bring it in. I step back outside, and a man gets out of his car, walks up to me, and says my first name. I was a bit taken aback and respond with 'uhh, yeah.'
He extends his arm for the most firm handshake I've ever received, and tells me that he's from UPS security, and was there to pick up the crate. Apparently, the NOAA Commander made a few calls before I made it there and arranged a pick up. He opens the box, says 'Yep, that's what they're looking for,' and packs it up. He asked me a few questions about the guy I spoke to on the phone, about where I go to college, and about the crate itself. After that, he rolls it off to his car and takes it away.
So, presumably, the government has the missing pieces of their drone back now. The actual return amounts to little more than a kid driving back to UPS and resending the package, but the student says the whole thing has been a pretty harrowing experience. He said his first instinct was to put the photos on Reddit because, what else do people do these days?
He doesn’t recommend it.
“So of course, (in retrospect, like an idiot), I post my findings to the internet. As a note to everyone else, this generally should NEVER be your first step, as things like this will blow up and get misconstrued,” he said. “And then, the shitstorm ensued. The post blew up, and I was getting tons of messages telling me that I'm an idiot, that they want to buy it off of me, that they are from the NOAA or UPS and want to contact me, and that I'd be getting assassinated in the next hour.”
He’s not assassinated, but he doesn’t necessarily want all the attention (beyond the Reddit karma) associated with accidentally getting a government box in the mail.
So, what caused the problem in the first place? It's still not entirely clear.
NOAA maintains that they did not screw up the labeling of the package. The college student says that he had ordered a weightlifting bench from Amazon, and that both the bench and the drone had similar labels on them (though they were completely different packages—he describes the government drone box as a "giant industrial crate."
Susan Rosenberg, a spokesperson for UPS, said the company is "conducting a full investigation" into the matter.
"There's three parties involved and we're working with all three of them," she told me. "NOAA just wanted us to get the package to them safely."
After a hell of a journey, it looks like the drone has made it back to its owner.