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.
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.
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.