RECENT UPDATE TIED DIRECTLY TO THIS POST, PLEASE READ AFTER YOU READ THIS PIECE FOR FURTHER PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE AND CONTEXT: http://aviationintel.com/?p=4476
We were first to post the story yesterday by almost an hour, thanks to some fantastic international patrons of aviationintel.com, and I have yet to find any in-depth analysis of the evidence presented by the Iranian Government of what appears to be an RQ-170 Sentinel displayed in a basketball gym, almost fully intact. The experts have chimed in all over the networks and print media, and I have to say this is even worse superficial analysis than the Stealth Blackhawk tail fiasco back in May (a story we were over a day ahead of anyone else, broken on the Lars Larson National Radio Program). I am not trying to sing my own praises here, I am just trying to underline that you have to be careful who you listen to. Just because they may work for a well-known news outlet it does not mean their commentary is totally informed. One “expert” today even said the drone was a fake because the wings were drooping. Apparently he did not look at the evidence for more than a couple of seconds, as this is fully explained by the pictures that have been distributed. Others have said that the drone is the wrong color. Have they ever been in a gym with sodium lights and wood floors? All whites can look beige, especially to the odd white balance metering in modern SLR and video cameras.
In this piece we are going to look at the photo evidence in-depth, then we are going to talk about the unique appearance and qualities of the RQ-170 and it’s possible origins. Finally, we are going to talk about the circumstances that could have occurred that would have resulted in such an aircraft being left almost totally intact after a supposed crash or loss total of control. This should round out a 360 degree picture of what is going on with the incredible developments on this story in the last 24 hours as well as address the explosion of chatter heard on television, in newspapers and especially on the internet concerning this topic.
THE PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE:
RED ARROW: This is very reminiscent of the radar diffuser/mesh grill found on the first generation stealth F-117A Nighthawk. This is a key point as the RQ-170 most likely was designed using rapid prototype efficiencies, commercially available subsystems, and a balance between low observability and risk to national security in mind. This is what I call “expendable stealth.”
BLUE ARROW: Although the airframe is generally intact, the leading edge has been scuffed and even perforated in some areas. This is a tell-tail sign of a hard, but flat landing.
RED ARROW: Why nobody has taken the high-resolution photo files and put them into Photoshop to blow out the details is beyond me. A huge tell in whether or not this thing is real or a fake would be what lies behind the intake radar diffuser. In this case it appears to be exactly what should be there, a jet motor with possibly some type of radar blocker covering the fan face. If this was a hastily designed mockup I seriously doubt the Iranians, who had full control of what images were released, would have formed such a smooth inlet and actually placed a motor inside. This is possibly the largest piece of evidence found during my analysis, and you have not seen it anywhere else but aviationintel.com! Sometimes it actually pays to be a professional photographer in these matters because you can utilize basic editing tools to bring out details that are not apparent in the images in the state that they are distributed.
This picture highlights the smooth lines of the specimen, it has well-formed continuous radius edges.
When the same picture is filtered, converted to black and white and cropped down we see some sort of seam filler covering something that seems to be designed into the airframe’s leading edge. The black tape is also a mystery but this contoured covering material is there for a reason. Is there a radar array imbedded behind this, similar to the B-2? Or are these possibly antennas for the aircraft’s ESM suite?
This is the top of the same picture blown up and heavily filtered.
Blue Arrow- The “access panel” and fine details on the spine of the machine do match the fuzzy pictures we have seen of the Sentinel flying out of its home base at Kandahar airfield. These broad lines actually appear to have some dimension to them, very reminiscent of the tape and gap fillers used on the F-117, B-2 and F-22 around access points and radar reflecting edges, although even then they a look a little “drawn on” in this picture. Frankly, from this angle its hard to tell.
Orange Arrow- At first I thought this was truly the tell that would determine that this thing is a bogus specimen. Those screw holes and that access plate looks totally drawn on, in fact it looks like they actually drew one line to long and abruptly stopped once they went past the corner. We have all done that when stenciling as kids right? The screw holes look totally fake, like they were just sharpied on the thing to make it look like a functioning machine. At first glance, this evidence really had me convinced that this was a prop of sorts, built in haste by the Iranians to satisfy a propaganda need at home and the world’s hunger for evidence that they actually did have a Sentinel in their grasp. But then I was able to capture the picture below…
Blue & Red Arrows- Once again, in this picture you can see that stray line that emanates from the bottom left hand side of the access hatch closest to the intake. But on closer evaluation it is apparent that this is most likely a piece of tape sealer that is come up on that edge. Further, an outline of some degrading tape sealer seems to be viewable along the area where the black “screws” are visible. In other words, it looks like these apparent defects are actually just that, defects, and not “drawn on” to the machine to make it look more realistic and representative of the photos available on the net. There may very well be an operational use for indicating where the panel and it’s screws lie underneath a sealant of some type for future maintenance access. So basically this went from a deal breaker for me to an area in question, but in no means a total disqualifier, as the photos available do not show close enough detail to rule one way or another.
Yellow & Green Arrows- This looks very much like the seams and slight variances in color and texture seen in the low quality photos captured out of Kandahar of the RQ-170. Further, these tape sealers or antenna cowlings really run with normal stealth manufacturing still seen today, but its especially prevalent on 20-year-old designs such as the B-2 Spirit. The taping and treating of service panels and radar reflective joints is also the notorious reason as to why operating stealth aircraft is so cost prohibitive. Its simply very time-consuming to constantly have to keep up the stealth coatings, especially in high use areas like access panels. Once again, nothing here is definitive but it’s also not a disqualifier in any means.
Red Arrow- In these two photos (one the original, the other a closeup crop of it) we see what is undoubtedly the largest area of trauma on the RQ-170. It looks as if the wings either broke off, were sawed off, or if this is a fake they were made crudely and separately, so they just put tape and epoxy over the ill-fitting joints. If the wings broke off during a hard landing it may have been do to a weak point in that area where the carbon fiber fuselage was attached to the carbon fiber wings. This would make sense as it would allow for wing flex and transportation. This would also jive with large component, low volume modular construction and rapid prototyping and production techniques (more about this later).
Alternatively, the Iranians very well could have been sawed off the wings in order to transport the aircraft as fast as possible away from the crash site, as the Iranians are knowingly paranoid of being watched at all times via the air (for good reason right?!). Further, they would have known that there would very well be a cruise missile or even an assault force headed their way. In such a case why not just saw the wings off and get it out of crash area? Further, it apparently had to fit in a school gym, and not many gyms I know of have massive hangar doors to move crashed drones in and out of. You may have asked yourself why in the hell is it in a gym, looking very much like a really smart high schooler’s experiment at the championship science fair? Simple, because the Iranians knew this was a BIG deal for the US and that the Americans would want to destroy their secret drone before letting it fall into Iranian hands, and we now know that such a strike and/or raid was being highly considered in Washington at this time. So why not store it in an urban environment, in a place full of children, and most certainly surrounded by innocent civilians? Human shields are simply the largest deterrent in a case like this so a very simple solution ended up probably being the best strategic one for the Iranians, although the “optics” do at first appear very strange.
Finally, there is the possibility that the wings were fabricated separate from the fuselage by the Iranians and they just didn’t fit right when they tried to put it all together, so they just taped and glued it together. I find this highly doubtful as the quality overall is just fantastic, why would the fake wing joints be made so terribly when the rest of the airframe is top notch? No matter what, both wings are broken is similar places on both sides of the fuselage, so something uniform, whether it was a structural failure on landing, cutting for transportation, or super shoddy craftmanship by an iranian “hoax” construction team, the aircraft did break in three distinct and symmetrical parts.
Green Arrow- Further evidence of light stress and impact damage along the leading edge.
This is a screencap from the video that aired on Iranian Television.
Red Arrow- The seam of the broken wing on the other side of the fuselage.
Green Arrow- The most clear evidence of impact damage on the airframe’s leading edge. It looks like the aircraft actually hit something hard enough to buckle the structural integrity of the leading edge.
Blue Arrow- Further underside/leading edge damage.
Green Arrow- Incredibly detailed and well matched rear paneling as seen in some of the pictures of the RQ-170 in the past.
Yellow- The “Beak” molding is very accurate when compared to all other pictures of the RQ-170. These are very fluid lines that would seem to be fairly hard to match exactly on this scale off of tiny, low resolution photographs.
Red Arrow- Here is a close-up crop of the same picture. What appears to be some sort of highly detailed exhaust (possibly an environmental control system component like a heat exchanger) or array of some sort has a noticeable “saw tooth” stealth treatment as well as a grill of some sort, possibly similar to the one seen on the RQ-170′s intake. This is the largest such component seen on the aircraft’s upper skin so it might have required a slightly more elaborate low observable treatment in order to bring it inline with the rest of the aircraft’s radar signature. This is a very unique and specific detail to have been simply be “dreamt up” by the Iranians in an attempt at hoax. Further, it looks very much like some of the vents and apertures that we have seen on the F-117, B-2 and even the F-22.
Red Arrow- Fully articulated flaps and ailerons just as they appear in prior photos. This is really heavy detail and unnecessary for a simple “proof of capture” photograph. A high degree of craftmanship and production quality can be seen by the even seams and tight fit of the control surfaces.
Blue- More of that incredibly accurate detail work on the rear of fuselage. Lots of taped off panels and surfaces here just as in prior photos.
This is far and away my favorite picture of the lot. Although it does not offer particularly exciting evidence like the enhanced intake shot, it does show how large and elaborate this machine truly is. I have heard “experts” talk a lot about how this thing is way to small compared to their expectations. But the dimensions given by the Iranians of about 26 meters wide with a length of 4.5 meters and height of 1.84 meters puts it exactly where it should be based on the pictures taken at Kandahar over the years. In some shots it was maybe 40% higher than a runway marker, that is pretty damn short, so this specimen makes perfect sense. In addition, flying wings are very deceiving size wise at first glance. Side-on the B-2 looks about the size of a F-111, head-on it looks like a monster, and from above it looks like a flying pancake, so just because something as unfamiliar as a flying wing looks small from a certain angle, it is in fact not small at all, and offers a tremendous amount of volume for fuel and payload. For me, this picture really puts it over the edge. If the aircraft is indeed a fake, it is a finer prop than Northrup Grumman’s X-47B full sized mockup that is used to sell their UCAV concepts. This is something that the NG folks had finished plans of the real McCoy to model it off of and spent weeks, if not months building. Yet you still can easily tell that the X-47 mockup is just a model. The Sentinel in Iranian hands is far, far more elaborate and convincing. And they built this in what? FOUR DAYS?
Here is where I stand on the evidence:
WHY IT IS FAKE:
-The outline that runs a little to long along the top access panel, and the odd over dramatic screw like spots that run along its edge, although another shot lended some explanation to this, something just fills odd about it.
-The fact that we are not able to view the bottom of the aircraft. Then again why would the Iranians want to show damage to the aircraft? It would makes their accomplishment more believable but less impressive. Further, landing gear would be very hard to reproduce or “mockup,” as they are complicated and very distinctive in appearance compared to the rest of the RQ-170′s flowing lines and broad, molded surfaces. Also it would give away the Sentinel’s sensor configuration, as that is where the electo-optical turret and faceted window enclosure is located. Think about it, why give the lemons to China and Russia for free when you can just give them a taste of the lemonade?
-The wings being detached and crudely fashioned to the airframe could be interpreted as a sign that it is a hoax, although I doubt this is due to shoddy workmanship as the rest of the article is top-notch, but its an issue to consider.
-No photos have been provided of the doomed drone right after the crash. Without an idea of how on earth this thing landed or crashed and survived in such great shape will make many think it is just impossible. Pictures of the aircraft at the crash site would explain this mystery to some extent and it would lend serious weight to the Iranian’s claims.
-Some news outlet’s unnamed government sources are saying that the DoD pulled the crash site up on satellite once the location of the Sentinel’s demise was found and saw a large debris field. This would make sense as any uncontrolled crash usually ends up in firey destruction right? Not always. We will discuss more about this later. But if indeed there was a debris field where the DoD thought it had crashed there is nothing to say the Iranians did not create one once they quickly hauled the wreckage away. People do not give the Iranian military enough credit, aside from the politics of situation, the Iranian military is much more resourceful than most would ever believe.
-The photos EXIF data (data embedded into the image when it is shot) says the pictures of the drone were taken with a 5D Mark II using a 28mm lens and common ameture settings on SEPTEMBER 17th 2011. This is strange, but not unheard of. In fact one of my 5D Mark II’s has the wrong date set in it right now! The only explanation for this beyond a simple setting error is that the Iranians were ready for such and occurrence and had an elaborate mockup ready to go. This may be the strongest evidence against the validity of the Iranian’s claim so far and you heard it right here first @ aviationintel.com!
WHY IT IS REAL:
-The fact that there appears to be a motor behind that radar diffuser/mesh grill and a well designed intake leading to jet’s fan face or radar blocker is a detail that did not have to be included for a hoax. This is a pretty hardcore detail that the Iranian’s did not have to provide for simple photographic proof regarding the issue.
-The intake radar diffuser/mesh grill is an interesting add-on to the story and does make a lot of sense with that design. Its dated technology, something that goes along with the “expendable stealth” mindset, and would help reduce any radar returns within the engine inlet. Further, in many pictures taken prior to the incident the inlet appears almost solid in nature. Given strange anomalies with lower end cameras and camera phones, under tough lighting condition this would explain this appearance and it would also explain why the inlet appears black under darker light conditions.
-The damage along the leading edge lends itself to a hard landing in a field, possibly one where the gear collapsed. Remember, as a flying wing, when the aircraft lands hard it has a much lower chance of “digging in” and performing somersaults and tearing itself apart. It spreads its weight along all that bottom surface area making it possible that it could land in a field without destroying itself. At least there is damage present and the omission of the undercarriage would help explain this.
-All the fine details are there, right where they should be based on the photographs we have seen of the Sentinel. Even tight-fitting control surfaces and taped access panels etc. The detail and symmetry of the article presented are simply amazing. Like I said before, Northrop Grumman’s marketing team did not pull off such an accurate and believable replica and they had all the time and money in the world to make it happen.
-The big picture is truly what is most impressive about the aircraft on display, and that is a big deal. The overall size, slope of the edges, the roundness of it’s beak, everything is present and accounted for. With aircraft models, the fine details can all be present, but if one line is off or one piece of geometry out of whack, the whole thing would look like a Ferrari kit car. Well it does not, it looks exact to an undeniable and elaborate degree. Even how the two communications ”humps” blend perfectly into the body, something that seems fake and unnatural, but its something that grabbed out attention about the RQ-170 years ago. It simply looks grown not built!
So my final conclusion is this: ITS REAL. Somehow, whether by luck or skill, Iran has possession of an intact RQ-170 Sentinel Drone built by Lockheed Skunk Works within the last decade. I am 75% sure of this at this point, and that is good enough for me to take a position on it, and I am happy to be proven wrong, but I do not think I will be in this case. Yesterday morning, when I was first to post this story thanks to some AWESOME readers from abroad, I was on the other side of this equation. I said at first glance, before I could really go through the evidence, there was a 35% chance of it being legitimate, and a 65% chance that it is a hoax. Now, after hours of close examination, a little Photoshop investigative work, and a lot of deductive reasoning, the tables have totally turned back around and then some, and I am confident that what you see in the photos and in the Iranian TV video is truly what you get.
THE UNIQUE “ORGANIC” LOOK OF THE RQ-170, WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
A lot of people have commented about how the RQ-170 looks like it was a plastic mold, or made out of paper mache’ even. One “expert” even called the display a “parade float.” Sadly, many of these people underestimate the creativity of the folks over at Lockheed Skunk Works.
Not every aircraft or UAV will look like every other one that came before it. The largest leaps in production and design techniques can be made on some of the smallest projects. An area where there has been a tremendous amount of research and development is on rapid prototyping and production techniques. Basically the goal of this concept is to use cutting edge design and fabrication methods to lower the time and cost of small lots of technology demonstrators and even operational aircraft. I have little doubt in my mind that this may be the RQ-170′s claim to fame as one of the first operational aircraft that was tested and produced in very small numbers utilizing this cutting edge concept.
So what does that mean for the RQ-170 and how it was designed? What it means is that the RQ-170 looks so smooth and different not just by design necessity but because it was produced using new processes that allow it to be produced cheaper and faster. For instance, instead of making a ton of separate pieces that have to be cobbled together to make a stealthy airframe, then all those joints and rivets have to be hidden etc, why not just design and built the aircraft out of few key pieces, each made up of a single chunk of carbon fiber? For instance, produce a carbon fiber fuselage, two carbon fiber wings, and carbon fiber control surfaces instead of welding and pairing lots of little pieces together that make up a wing, or a fuselage. You would end up with an incredibly strong and lightweight yet simpler and more cost-effective airframe. Further, you are able to do great things with carbon fiber that you could not do with a combination of materials. For instance, you can incorporate the communications “domes” right into the structure of the aircraft instead of attaching them via fasteners and joints.
So what rapid prototyping pushes the designer to do is to create a solution to a mission out of absolutely the minimal amount of parts possible. This drastically increases simplicity, while decreasing production times and price. Finally, by creating an aircraft out of a few key structural components that are smooth and free of welds, joints and fasteners, you can create an aircraft that is stealthy by its very design. You can even pond radar eluding material right into its polymer structure so that it does not need the latest radar absorbent paint and surface coatings to survive over hostile territory. And as part of the rapid prototyping and production ethos you can fill that simple airframe up with components that are currently available of the shelf, so you can once again build small runs or products cheaper, quicker and at lower risk to the customer, both in the terms of cost control and national security secrets.
A probable direct descendant of the RQ-170, the Lockheed Skunk Works P-175 ”Polecat” UAV technology demonstrator utilized the rapid prototyping process through almost its entire design and production phase. Over 90% of the airframe was made out of composite material and built via pieces from a 3D printer that basically produces anything and everything out of polymers and composites straight from CAD design software. Please read this short piece to give you a better idea of what I am talking about:
So the simple and almost cheapishly abstract appearance of the RQ-170 is just that, it was built to be simple, cheap and available to commanders fast. All the while it is capable of doing amazing, high risk things without putting our cutting edge, high performance, stealth airframe design processes and materials at risk. Which in this author’s opinion makes the Sentinel as remarkable as any super sensitive, high speed stealth spy plane ever could be. One is simply much more humble than the other, but that does not mean it isn’t even more relevant over today’s murky battlefields.
WHY DIDNT IT BREAK INTO A MILLION PIECES?
So many are rightfully wondering how this little drone did not end up a smoking hole in the ground? Well folks let me tall you, stranger things have happened in the world of aviation. There is a long list of crazy stories where aircraft ended up landing totally intact yet the pilot was no longer in control. Sometime physics just works against all odds! Please read this story, you will see what I am talking about, its insanely relevant to today’s discussion:
Also, we have NO IDEA what course of events actually doomed this drone. The DoD will probably never come clean with the details describing what happened leading up to the loss of contact with the drone in question. Further, we have no clue what the programmed default instructions were for the UAV to do when it could not reestablish a link with it’s masters. Does it circle? Does it return to base? If it circles what happens when it runs out of gas? Does it have enough artificial intelligence onboard to attempt a rough field landing? What happens if the thing is being electronically jammed, not just it’s communications links but also it’s GPS? What are the drone’s default instructions then? What happens if the GPS is out of whack and the inertial navigation system also begins having issues? Exactly how hard is it to hack into one of these things? Could Iran have broken the encryption language onboard? This is high, HIGHLY unlikely but we don’t know any of this for sure. The questions can go on forever, we simply have no context on protocols like this for a secret stealth drone who hangs out a constantly in unfriendly or normally denied airspace.
Why hasn’t anyone addressed the real possibility that the motor quit?!!? It only has one engine remember? It it did lose its propulsion while deep into a mission and it had burnt off some gas I bet it would be one hell of a glider. Maybe when the engine quits it try’s to hold its attitude until literally it stops moving. In other words maybe it got lucky and did a light pancake landing into a field. Is that really to outside the box for aviation “experts” to comprehend? Maybe they need to take some flying lessons as pilots are always taught to be aware of your options if the motor quits BECAUSE IT DOES HAPPEN. Why is a little stealthy drone running on a single CRJ motor any different? Do you really believe that designers programmed this thing to plow into the ground at high-speed if the engine quit? Obviously they would not want this on a training or test flight, is there a separate program for a real missions? Who knows.
What I am trying to say here is that these things happen. Aviation is a wild business and pretty much nothing is 100% reliable. Humans are imperfect and so are the machines and tools we make. So, definitively saying that the drone put on display by the Iranians is a fake simply because it is intact is so full of assumptions its painful and a disservice to the public who we serve.
I hope you enjoyed this analysis, I think it will move the discussion forward. One thing is for certain, there are some very frustrated UAV operators and Skunk Works employees waking up this morning in America and some very happy Iranian Military officials sitting down for dinner in Tehran as this is being published. This year has been a wild year for America’s clandestine stealth technologies, and we still have a few weeks left till 2012!
Stay tuned for further developments…
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