Iran finally built a sophisticated drone! Well, maybe…
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In 2011, Iran seized an American stealth drone near the border with Afghanistan. Since then, Iranian authorities have repeatedly announced that they were studying the sophisticated machine in order to build a copy. On November 12, they proudly unveiled this new drone on national television. However, experts remain dubious due to several strange details.
The Iranian version of the drone lifting off.
In 2011, Iran seized an American stealth drone near the border with Afghanistan. Since then, Iranian authorities have repeatedly announced that they were studying the sophisticated machine in order to build a copy. On November 12, they proudly unveiled this new drone on national television. However, experts remain dubious due to several strange details…
The CIA drone RQ-170, also known as “the beast of Kandahar”, was built in 2009 and is considered to be a technological wonder. This delta-shaped flying wing, which is about 20 metres in diameter, can go 15,000 metres into the sky, and is one of the most high tech stealth drones in the world. Iranian forces have bragged about how they “captured” it by pirating its control system; however, the CIA claims the drone, which was flying a surveillance mission, was forced to land due to a technical problem.
The original drone, on display in Iran.
In 2013, Iranian authorities announced that a team of specialists had decoded the drone’s computers, and that they were building a replica. According to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s head of aerospace, it is now operational. General Brigadier Amir Ali Hajizadeh unveiled what he has called an improved version of the American drone. This new and ‘improved’ Iranian drone is not just for reconnaissance - like the original - but also open fire.
The military have called on the Iranian population to suggest a name for its new drone.
The first images of the new drone
Video edited and broadcast by Iranian television.
In the first video showing the long-awaited new machine, the drone is shown flying at low altitude in a mountainous region, though the authorities did not specify where. It is filmed from the ground as well as from a flying helicopter.
"Several details point to it being a prototype, smaller and lighter than the original"
Nevertheless, several details have struck observers as strange. Among them is David Cenciotti, an aviation expert. He runs the blog “The Aviationist”.
What makes the footage suspicious is the landing: the way it touches down and bounces leads me to believe it is smaller and lighter than the original. A full-size drone or small plane would not bounce so fast. The kinematics of the landing – the way the drone moves – is strange; it's similar to that of small radio-controlled models. [Editor’s Note: The American version of the RQ-170 was piloted from an airbase in the United States via a GPS system, which is technology that Iran does not have access to].
Then, the drone in the video has strange and thin landing gear legs, with no gear bay doors. [Editor’s Note: These doors close when the gear legs go up].
Photo of the original drone.
Furthermore, if you compare the size of the drone in the video with the width of the runway, you'll notice the Iranian one is smaller than the original one. [Editor’s Note: While it is not known which Iranian airport the drone landed at, a runway is generally between 25 and 45 metres wide].
The new drone flying off.
Internet user's diagram.
These questions about the size of the drone compared to the runway were also brought up by Iranian Internet users, who have drawn up numerous diagrams. Many of them also noticed that there was an antenna on the Iranian drone – proof, they say, that the drone is radio-controlled, meaning it is technologically much less advanced than the American version.
The Pentagon’s spokesperson reacted to the video by saying there was no chance that it could match the original’s technological prowess. But in Iran, General Hajizadeh is sticking to his guns. The day the video was broadcast, he told the Iranian press: “We won’t send the original RQ-170 back to the United States. However, if they lift the sanctions, we’ll be happy to send the Iranian version.”
A drone can have an antenna, even though a real one would probably have embedded to protect it and reduce drag. An antenna like that would point towards this being a radio-controlled drone, of the type “Line of Sight”. [Editor’s Note: this system covers both drones that are piloted within eyesight of the person controlling it, and those that are flown outside their line of sight thanks to a radio signal.] And anything that emits a radio wave can be intercepted with special equipment!
Finally, the sound of the engine is different from the sound of the original RQ-170 (or any other drone). The sound of the engine seems to be that of a small engine.
This would not be the first time that Iran boasts of technological advances that are not very credible. In February 2013, we published an article showing that images the authorities shared of a stealth combat plane had been photoshopped.