An American surveillance drone has been captured and filmed in Iran, where experts are apparently examining it. But how much valuable information are they likely to glean?
Pictures broadcast by Iranian television of the stealth RQ-170 Sentinel will have made grim viewing in Washington.
Iran has rejected US calls for its return, and state television says military experts were in the final stages of recovering data.
So how easy is it to extract information from a drone?
“It could have crashed and come apart. The version seen on the video clips could be a reconstruction. But if the aircraft is relatively intact, you could take a fair bit from it.”
One thing the Iranians might be doing is testing it with radar in an anechoic chamber, he says, to find its “radar cross-section”, which is a measure of how detectable it is. They could also learn from some of the more exotic radar-defeating shaping and materials.
- Very useful if it’s not damaged
- Could learn how it evades radar
- Also how it intercepts signals
- But information on how it flies requires complex computer software
Some parts of the RQ-170 – such as the undercarriage and likely the fly-by-wire avionics and engine – have been taken from existing aircraft, so won’t offer much that’s new.
“But the real bonanza is likely to be the payload. We don’t know what payloads are on there but there’s probably signal intelligence, electro-optical sensors and/or a radar.
“The RQ-170 doesn’t carry weapons and the two humps on the top of the fuselage are radomes or fairings covering satellite uplinks which send information back from those sensors to the aircraft’s control station.”
With the RQ-170 itself, the challenge is not so much building it but making it airworthy, says Mr Brown.
“There are complicated algorithms that control the aircraft. Getting a boomerang-shaped object to fly where you want it to fly is hard and only really possible with advanced flight modelling, powerful computers and software.
For all its futuristic shape, the RQ-170 Sentinel is by no means state of the art. Lessons could certainly be learnt about how it is put together and the means used to cloak its exhaust, always a problem in low-observable or stealth aircraft. But reverse-engineering the Sentinel is seen by experts as probably being beyond Iran’s capability.
Of greater concern to Washington is what the drone may have been carrying. The likelihood is that it had on board a full-motion video camera. This again is not cutting-edge technology. Reaper drones with more advanced multi-channel video pods have been flying over Afghanistan for about a year. If one of those fell into the wrong hands that really would be something.
“So if you don’t have that level of information gleaned from the aircraft’s onboard hard drive and circuitry you won’t easily be able to do anything but build something that’s the same shape.”
All the control algorithms would be encrypted, so it’s not as easy as just reading a hard drive and replicating it, he adds.
Could the Iranians do it?
They are past masters at reverse engineering, says Mr Brown, and they have an awful lot of capability, without needing outside help, but sharing the platform with friendly states could offer Tehran substantial political capital.
“Anything is possible and theoretically Iran could copy quite a lot from the basic platform, but it’s the control stuff and the avionics that make it usable.”
Any form of unmanned technology is potentially very important to Iran, Russia and China, says Elizabeth Quintana, a senior researcher in air power, at the Royal United Services Institute.
In enemy hands
“But how useful it is depends on how intact the aircraft is, and whether it had any self-destructive, self-disabled mechanisms on board. I suspect it had some but it looks like it’s in one piece, from the pictures and video.”
It would be capable of taking images and listening in, she says, so there’s quite a lot of information on board, not least about the platforms themselves – how they work, how they communicate with satellites and how the Americans operate them. And identifying the materials that enable the drone to absorb radiated energy – rather than reflect it back – would also be very useful.
“I don’t know the level of scientific expertise available to Iran, but if it’s true that Russia and China have sent delegates then they do have the expertise.”
- How useful is a captured stealth drone? (bbc.co.uk)
- Iran Rejects US Calls to Return Downed Drone (voanews.com)
- Iran ready to clone US drone (rt.com)
- Iran says it will fly its own stealth drone (theglobeandmail.com)
- ‘Give back our spy drone’ (theage.com.au)
- Obama: Give Us Our Drone Back (libyaagainstsuperpowermedia.com)
- Empire strikes back: Did Pakistani intelligence tip off Iran to U.S. drone flight plan?(theextinctionprotocol.wordpress.com)
- Iran could seek China’s help on U.S. drone (cbsnews.com)
- New Armed Stealth Drone Heads To Afghanistan (And Maybe Iran, Too) | Danger Room | Wired.com (wired.com)
- SecState Clinton Doesn’t Expect Iran to Comply with Obama Request to Return Stealth Drone(waronterrornews.typepad.com)