Cover: Not the X-Files

Not the X-Files

Mapping Public Reports of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Across America

Published Jul 25, 2023

by Marek N. Posard, Ashley Gromis, Mary Lee


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Research Questions

  1. Where are people likely to report sightings of UAPs in the United States?
  2. What factors predict where people are more or less likely to report UAP sightings?

The U.S. government is responsible for an estimated 5.3 million square miles of domestic airspace and 24 million square miles of oceanic airspace. The February 2023 downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon after it had flown across the country raised questions about the degree to which the U.S. government knows who is flying what over its territorial skies. The United States has finite resources to monitor objects flying through its airspace. At the same time, advances in technology allow the general public, private companies, and civilian government agencies to operate ever-smaller commercially available drones that intentionally or unintentionally capture and contribute to activity in the skies. This trend could make public reports of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) an important source of information for U.S. government officials.

In this report, RAND researchers present a geographic analysis of 101,151 public reports of UAP sightings in 12,783 U.S. Census Bureau census designated places. Specifically, they provide findings on U.S. locations where UAP reports are significantly more likely to occur and offer recommendations to increase awareness of the types of activities that might be mistaken for unexplained phenomena or that point to potential threats. The data were collected by the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), one of the nongovernmental entities that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has referenced in official documents for where to report unexplained phenomena. The analyses of these data should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any individual reports to NUFORC or of the accuracy of the database.

Key Findings

  • A review of 101,151 public reports of UAP sightings in the United States from 1998 to 2022 found an inconsistent relationship between the nearest military and weather installations and self-reports of UAP sightings.
  • The models used to conduct the analysis showed that reports of UAP sightings were less likely within 30 km of weather stations, 60 km of civilian airports, and in more–densely populated areas, while rural areas tended to have a higher rate of UAP reports.
  • The most consistent and statistically significant finding was that reports of UAP sightings were more likely to occur in areas within 30 km of military operations areas, where routine military training occurs.


  • Government authorities should conduct outreach with civilians located near military operations areas. Many civilians may not be aware that they are located near areas where military operations occur. If the results of the analysis are correct — that is, if being located within 30 km of military operations areas is significantly associated with reports of UAPs, and if some of these reported objects are authorized aircraft — then communicating that such activities are being conducted nearby could reduce the likelihood that the public will report these aircraft as UAPs.
  • Government authorities should conduct additional outreach to notify nearby civilians when there is airspace activity near a military operations area. According to the FAA, not all military operations areas are in use by authorized aircraft. When appropriate, notifying local populations of activities in military operations areas could reduce the number of reported UAPs that are in fact authorized aircraft.
  • An evaluation should be conducted to inform the design of a detailed and robust system for public reporting of UAP sightings. Such an evaluation would inform the use of various technologies, reporting on location types, sighting features, criteria for validating these reports, and who is best equipped to independently manage such a reporting system. Such a system would be useful in minimizing hoaxes and reports of misidentified objects.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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