Drones seem to work better if they look like drones

So, a couple years ago, the Iranian Military got its hands on one of the newest American Drones. One, where the people who sell them claim that they are “stealth” and therefore almost invisible for radar and perfectly suited for espionage and clandestine killing. The whole event was an embarrassment on the American site and cause for celebration for the Iranian government.

Schematic drawing of the drone the Americans “lost”.

The apparent success might have something to do with the very distinct appearance of this fancy drone. Far remote from the makeshift look many current drones share, with an old-fashioned looking propeller on the back and bombs and sensors sticking out everywhere; this one does look like Sci-Fi. So even though the drone was damaged during the capture, it created quite a number of images that were eagerly used by the press worldwide.

The captured drone is presented to the media.

Sometime later, after the Iranian government had declared that they had reverse engineered the drone, images of an Iranian copy of the drone made their round on the Internet and in certain media outlets. The fly worthiness of the drone was instantly questioned, but that did not really seem to matter. This was about a propaganda coup. Again, the very distinct appearance of the drone made it quite easy to rip it off. The round shapes, the rough edges, all quite easily copied with some fiberglass and the fact that the shape of the original drone hides most of the intricate internal working certainly made things easier.

The Iranian “reverse engineered” version of the drone.

So, the new drone, even though possibly not able to do anything, did serve its purpose. Plus: since this had been a highly classified American drone, there had been no (or very little) footage released of it flying before the capture, so why should the Iranians not follow the American lead? Propaganda is normally not aimed at those people who can easily decipher it as propaganda. Therefore, in terms of propaganda, good enough is all you need. This makeshift drone copy was certainly good enough.

The distinct shape of the drone became even part of the local propaganda folklore

A few months ago, there was a grainy video from Syria or Iraq, that showed explosives being dropped by a remote-controlled drone on some fighters below. Even though this was done by certainly using one of those enthusiast level hobby drones, this was in a way an escalation. For quite some time before drone footage was more and more used to document attacks. But these were limited to enabling the viewer a different perspective on the battlefield. A new vantage point. This first “drone strike from the oppressed”, looked quite crude. The video quality was low and the whole device seemed wonky.

A couple of days ago, there was some fuzz on the channels I use to find the videos I download over an upcoming film that was going to show a number of drone strikes by ISIS on targets in and around of Mosul. But the biggest news seemed to be that ISIS was using a high-tech drone, close to the one the Americans had lost. At least that seemed to be the claim.

The ISIS version.
Note the three GoPro cameras used to film the flight. These are not present in the image above.

In a way, the video, when it was published, was in deed very scary. It seems as if the technology here has developed to a point, where it is possible for insurgents to utilize remote controlled drones to kill people from a distance. And this the video shows at some length. Several groups of people are attacked – and from the looks of it people are certainly injured and maybe even killed.

But what strikes me in relationship to the story above goes beyond that. In the video, you see two guys operating a remote-controlled drone that carries two little bombs and it even shows the bombs being dropped mid-flight. The shape of the drone, which is little more than an RC plane, is made to resemble the high-end drones used by the Americans and copied by the Iranians. Sure, that might be a mere coincidence and could just be done to achieve better aerodynamics, but if you look at the video closely, it becomes clear that the drone shown isn’t actually the drone used in the attacks.

The attacks are shot from a stationary vantage point and therefore would require the drone to hover. So, it is more likely that the attacks were undertaken with tiny little helicopters. Sure, they had been as deadly and as scary. But my question would be why bother and built a completely different drone if you do not use it in the attacks altogether? Wouldn’t it be easier to just show the drones you use for your attacks? Maybe not. If you want to call something a “drone strike”, maybe you need something that resembles the common idea of what a drone looks like. You have to follow the drone archetype and make it your own.

The helicopter stile drone might be far better in dropping bombs and killing people, but “real armies” us real drone and due to the Iranian propaganda, real drones have become an image that resembles them. The fact that the size of the ISIS drone is off by a factor of ten does not really matter. The drone has merely become a shape and form and neither its final size nor its real capabilities seem to matter. To the visually driven outside world, both look the same. Most people would not bother to research such an image any further. They might have a vague idea of what a modern American drone might look like – since Iranian propaganda was everywhere and the images from this source had been used in Western media as well – and if the shape somehow fits, well, that can only mean that ISIS now has modern drones. This is all propaganda needs.


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