The 'Canonical' Image of a Drone Is a Rendering Dressed Up in Photoshop

"I had never seen an image of a drone actually firing a missile so that is what I decided to create," says Michael Hahn.
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The media of the drone war is not like the media of World War II or Vietnam. Largely, it does not exist outside official government releases. We see the aftermath of explosions, sometimes, but almost never the actual movements of unmanned aerial vehicles as they strike in Somalia or Afghanistan. The secretive and globe-spanning nature of the conflict means that journalists are rarely close to the action. And even if they were positioned nearby, it would be next to impossible to catch a drone in an act of war.

And yet, James Bridle notes, this image, nominally of a Reaper drone, exists and it is everywhere.

dronerender.jpg

He calls it "the most widely reproduced image" of a drone and says it's become the "canonical" version of the technology. Because of its ubiquity it has come to symbolize the drone war, at least within some technological domains like Google Images, where it is the first result returned when you search "drone." 

And the picture, decontextualized and then recontextualized, even shows up on the streets of Karachi. Here, we see a protester posing in front of a poster-sized version for a Reuters photographer. 

dronePolicy_reuters.jpg

But working on a hunch, Bridle did a little snooping and discovered that the image is a fiction, one that has come to represent the very real drone war. 

The Canon Drone is indeed entirely unreal. A close inspection, and comparison with other Reaper images, including 09-4066, bears this out almost immediately. The level of detail is too low: missing hatches on the cockpit and tail, the shape of the air intake, the greebling on the fins and body. That 'NY' on the tail: it's not aligned properly, it's a photoshop. Finally, the Canon Drone's serial, partly obscured, appears to be 85-566. The first two numbers of USAF serials refer to the year an aircraft entered service: there were no Reapers back in 1985 (development didn't even begin until 2001).

The Canon Drone does not exist, it never has. It is computer generated rendering of a drone, a fiction. It flies over an abstracted landscape - although perhaps the same one as another canonical image, this Predator in flight, which, while unmarked, at least appears worn enough to be believable.

When I tweeted this story, user @piombo, did some quick sleuthing. He dropped the image into Google and added the text search "rendered." It popped up within a forum devoted to 3D modeling in a February 2009 post by Michael Hahn, who created this image. I emailed Hahn to learn more about how the image was created. He sent over a quick narrative and the original rendering from the 3D modeling software package MODO.

screenshot0.jpg "I then pieced together the planes insignia for references images found on wikipedia and google searches," Hahn said. "I choose the 174th attack wing insignia because they are located about 20 miles from where I live." That got the image to this state: 

uav4.jpg

The background came from a now-difficult-to-find Flickr image of the Afghani landscape, and through the magic of Photoshop, Hahn had created this (check out the layers on the right side):

screenshot2.jpg

None of which answers why this particular rendering became the top ranking image of a drone, though Hahn has some ideas.

"I am not sure how it become the number one image of drones," Hahn told me. "I think at the time I created it was one of the few images available. The only places I posted the image online were to a couple 3d sites. Here. and here. People must have got the image from either one of those sites."

Why'd people buy this image, which, on even a little closer inspection is clearly a rendering? Bridle thinks drones "always appear otherworldly." And truly, even in photographs I know are real, they seem more rendering than material object.

And, as importantly, I also think Americans craved (and crave) some way of understanding the war part of the drone war. How do these things actually work? How do they fire? How do they kill?

Hahn hinted at something like this in his own process. "I had never seen an image of a drone actually firing a missile so that is what I decided to create," he said. And suddenly, everyone else, who also had never seen a drone actually firing a missile, had a way of seeing with their own eyes.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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