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.

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.

"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:

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):


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.