I have something of an obsession with the image above, considering it the “canonical” image of a drone.
It’s the first Google image result for “drone” and as such is reproduced endlessly elsewhere. The warping effects of Google Image results on public understanding of complex subjects are a discussion for another time, but it’s worth noting that the image is frequently captioned as a Predator (General Atomics MQ-1) drone, when it is in fact a Reaper (GA MQ-9) - including in such contexts as activist reports on Drone warfare. An artist’s impression that would appear to be based on this image graces the box of the Revell 1:48 MQ-9 Model. It’s the avatar for Dronestagram.
It took a while to track down the markings, but this aircraft bears the insignia of the 138th Attack Squadron, part of the 174th Attack Wing (174 ATW), a unit of the New York Air National Guard, stationed at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, Syracuse, New York. This image at Wikipedia shows another 174 ATW aircraft, registration 09-4066 (this serial number does not appear in Joe Baugher’s listing of 2009 USAF serials, although there is a record of a Reaper aircraft numbered 09-4056 which crashed in California in 2010).
There are no drones visible in either Bing or GEarth historical imagery of Hancock Field to add to the Watchers project, or at Wheeler Sack AAF which the 174 ATW uses for launch and recovery, and where the latter photo was shot on on 14 Feb 2012.
I had some suspicions about the Canon Drone, and research bears these out.
At first, the feeling was just unease. Staring at it for some time, seeing it endlessly reproduced across the web and in print, it began to seem unreal, a fiction, too smooth, too perfect. But that’s an effect of drones: they always appear otherworldly. (See, for example, this image of a Global Hawk at Waddington Air Show in 2010. The beluga-like Hawk seems impossible, smoothly rendered into the perambulating crowd.)
Of course, it’s not just that. 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.
Where does the image originate? As the default drone photo, it is endlessly reproduced without attribution. It appears in Google Image searches for 2009, but not for 2008 - although I’m unsure how reliable this dating is. I’ve hit a wall in finding out more.
I think: the Canon Drone is emblematic of the liminal, self-obfuscating essence of the UAV, and all of our noumenal infrastructures. The most widely reproduced image of this most illegible of our contemporary technologies is itself a dream.
UPDATE: A reader found the source of the image.