Iran Claims to Decode Imagery From Captured RQ-170 But Image Quality Sucks


In the ongoing saga of whether or not Iran hacked our RQ-170 Sentinel drone to down it in December of 2011, Marcy has asked many questions. More recently, Iran announced last December that they had decoded all of the data from that drone and from the less sophisticated ScanEagle they had just claimed to have captured, which prompted more questions on the RQ-170’s mission before it came down. Today, Iran is releasing video and stills that it claims to have come from the decrypted imagery carried on the RQ-170.

Here is PressTV’s description of the video:

Iran has for the first time released decoded video recordings obtained from a US RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone downed and captured by the Islamic Republic in December 2011.

The recordings have been made by the drone’s underbelly camera, and include views from the area surrounding the Kandahar base as the drone is about to land.

So what kind of camera is in the underbelly of an RQ-170? The website has a profile of the RQ-170 that includes these snippets:

Flying at an altitude of 50,000ft, the RQ-170 can offer its operators with real time intelligence data by executing surveillance and reconnaissance operations over a large area.


An electro-optic camera was incorporated beneath the front fuselage section to seize the real time imagery or videos of the battlefield it is surveying.

Okay, then. What are the capabilities of an electro-optic camera? Here is NASA on that question, on a web page that includes a photo of what looks like the nose of a different type of drone:

The Electro-Optic Camera (EOC) System is an experimental sensor under development by the High Altitude Missions Branch at NASA Ames Research Center. The system captures high resolution digitized images from a solid-state array and stores the imagery on magnetic tape. The EOC will acquire imagery along a twelve mile (20 km) swath width at pixel resolution of thirty-two feet (10 m) in three pre-selectable channels of data over a spectral range of 400 to 900 microns. The camera also tilts fore and aft automatically for bi-directional reflectance measurements and will be equipped with a rotating polarizer.

An electro-optic camera can fly at 50,000 feet with a resolution of 32 feet at ground level. And yet, we see this in one of the stills Mehr News put up:

There simply is no way that the video and stills Iran has released have the quality that an electro-optic camera would produce even though Iran claims their images came from the underbelly camera and the available literature says that camera should be an elecro-optic one. I’m no expert in encryption and decryption of images, so unless this low image quality is a strange result of only partial success in the decryption process, I think we have to call bullshit on Iran’s claims here. [It appears they also could use some coaching on the proper spelling of “aerial”.] The only other explanation would be if a second, lower resolution camera also is present as a backup to the electro-optic system, but there is no way this could be the imagery that the US would be collecting for intelligence gathering purposes.

Update: It seems that the New York Times and experts they cite differ with me (as does PJ Evans in comments below) on the authenticity of the imagery released by Iran.

Update 2: This article suggests the latest sensors have much better resolution than the 10 meters at 50,000 feet number quoted above. It cites six inches at 15,000 feet. And with the RQ-170 being a newly developed drone, one would expect it to have the best available imaging.

20 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    The on-ground imagery isn’t bad, though.

    10-meter resolution actually isn’t very high quality. It’s at the level of ‘is that a building?’ – I spent most of the last six years looking at aerial photos.

  2. Jim White says:

    @P J Evans: I don’t have that experience, but I thought the on-ground stuff was even worse and mostly out of focus. It’s also strange that they would only put up such a small amount of video.

  3. Jim White says:

    @P J Evans: The New York Times appears to believe the footage is real, citing especially how authentic the on-ground footage looks and the other aircraft that can be seen. The resolution of these images still bothers me, though. From on the ground, it seems like we should be able to make out a LOT more detail with a camera that resolves to 10 meters from 50,000 feet. Here, we are seeing items about a thousand times closer than 50,000 feet, so shouldn’t we resolve to centimeter level?

    Times link:

  4. P J Evans says:

    @Jim White:
    I think that’s more a function of the camera as the altitude. I’ve seen stuff with really good resolution, from airplanes, where you could see what color clothes someone was wearing as they got out of a car – but most on-line imagery isn’t going to be quite that good without having to be being paid for.
    I believe Google and Bing aerials go down to the 1-meter range, possibly to 50cm resolution – at the higher magnifications, in non-rural areas, it’s possible to see objects that are about 1 foot across.

  5. Kathleen says:

    The Diane Rehm show focused on the drone killings this morning and Chris Matthews Hardball has been focused on the drone killings the last few nights. Both programs ignoring Anwar al Alawaki’s 16 year old son being killed by US drones(have I read that another young man had been killed in that drone strike) and ignoring the ACLU reporting that at least 4000 people have been killed by Obama’s drones. Really something at a time when US military technology can see a fly on the ass of a camel they are unable to report about how many people they have killed. Not a mention on either of these programs that the UN has recently announced an investigation into US drone killings.

    Watching the Panetta,Gen Dempsey Benghazi hearings. Senator Chambliss really hit General Dempsey hard saying that he (Dempsey) had failed in the Benghazi attack. No one bringing up that Republicans had voted against increasing funding for security. Did Chris Stephens say no to extra security?

  6. Kathleen says:

    this morning on the Diane Rehm show Peter Bergen talked about how many countries have drones. Think he said 70 countries

  7. scribe says:

    When evaluating this (or any other similar disclosure) keep in mind the old saw: “I might have taught you all you know, but I didn’t [necessarily] teach you all I know.

    In other words, just because what they’re showing us is crappy, doesn’t mean they didn’t get really good results and keep them to themselves.

    Also, keep in mind that if the camera in issue is working, as the NASA quote you give implies, in the spectral range of 400 to 900 microns, that means it is an infrared camera, working in the far-to-extreme infrared range. Visible light is in a considerably shorter wavelength range, i.e., between 0.37 (violet) and 0.75 (red) microns.

    So, assuming my deduction is correct and it’s an infrared camera, three things obtain: (1) converting the image to something our eyes can perceive (in the visible spectrum) will result in crappy image quality, (2) any infrared image will tend to be fuzzy anyway because there will be waste heat running around objects and showing up in the image, making the image fuzzy and (3) the low resolution doesn’t matter.

    The reason the low resolution will not matter is because the camera would be used in the search for heat sources – kind of a scanning function to find things for further investigation – as opposed to a straight-up, take the guy’s picture and identify him and read his license plate from the edge of space. Since the vast majority of both the world and of the areas where this thing is supposedly being used are … rural, heat sources of all sorts will tend to be fairly distinct and stand out against a large, blank, cold background. Moreover, because of the much-longer wavelengths of infrared radiation (as opposed to visible) a huge camera would be required to achieve fine resolution of anything, were they interested in taking pictures in the infrared.

    So, this would be ideal for sussing out the locations of both surface and buried things, people, whatever that gives off a heat signature even slightly different from the background. Then, different systems operating in different wavelengths could be used to take sharper pictures. Or, given what we know publicly about things falling from the sky and making ground objects go away in a big bang, this would be sufficient to send those things on their way with the instruction to “go to and home in on that heat source”.

  8. Jim White says:

    See the second update, where I found reference to US imaging technology with even higher resolution than that discussed in the body of the post.

  9. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    Jim, I commented on an earlier piece of yours that your reporting on Iran seems biased. It appears so here as well.

    While I don’t think Iran is all sweetness and light by any stretch of the imagination, one of the things that is unique about most articles on this forum are that they are consistently anti-war, anti-mainstream propaganda, anti-we-believe-the-lies, etc. In short, they’re largely critical of the propaganda that we hear repeatedly from MSM and Gov including the we-need-to-bomb-Iran-cause-they-epitomise-evil lie.

    I get the sense that you are pro-war with Iran and believe the lies we are being told that will lie us into another war, as with WMD and Iraq.

    I’d be interested in an article outlining your view of Iran and the reasons you have for holding this view.

    Further, it seems to me that North Korea might deserve significantly more attention than Iran and yet I have not noticed any article from you outlining those issues.

  10. Jim White says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): Just wow. Did you forget your snark tag? Have you read ANY of my posts where I routinely go after George Jahn, Joby Warrick and David Albright precisely because I see them advocating war with Iran?

    What a crock of shit.

    I abhor war and the idea of an elective war with Iran. But I also pay a lot of attention to technical issues, and I will continue to call bullshit on any party that makes a claim that I don’t think is supported by the technology underlying the claim. That is all that is going on here.

  11. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    @Jim White: OK, my apologies, you do write fucking long posts and I don’t always manage to read them in their entirety, so I accept my perceptions of pro-war may be unfounded. I’ll review older Jahn, Warrick and Albright pieces but, assuming they are as you indicate, and I am not doubting that they are (anti-war), that still doesn’t address the bias issue. What about bias? What are your thoughts on Iran itself? Does it have the right to be left alone? Is it not completely entitled to tell the US to fuck right off? Is it not a sovereign country that owes nothing to the US while adhering to its own desires including any attitude, short of declaring war of course, it has regarding Israel?

    I wonder why this article attempts to discredit Iran with what appears to be weak evidence.

    I still am not convinced there is no bias and have sensed it before.

  12. Kathleen says:

    Mr. Brennan what do you think it says about our justice system when a former CIA counter terrorism agent is going to prison for two and a half years for exposing the US torture program while those who tortured are not being sent to prison. What do you think that this same agent was almost charged with espionage based on the Identities protection act while all of those in the Bush administration who purposely outed undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame have done no prison time

  13. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    @Jim White: “Now bugger off and stop telling me how to blog”

    Ahh, nothing like free speech advocates telling others who are critical, and maybe in need of education on certain points, to go away and shut the fuck up.

    I recently got a response from a council member of a political party I was thinking of joining that said, “if you don’t like our rules, start your own party”. True democracy, run by the backroom boys for the backroom boys and not a clue that their statement was completely counter to their promoted inclusive and accountable platform.

    I am often amazed at how so called advocates of a position reveal themselves as anything but; free speech advocates who stifle debate, small d democrats who think they are uniquely positioned to dictate the rules.

    I learn a lot about people from such actions.

  14. Jim White says:

    @Greg Bean (@GregLBean): My last response for you.

    Note I just gave you my honest response to you telling me how to blog (kind of like Iran having the right to do as they please without intervention you mentioned a bit earlier). You are free to say anything you damn well please. I didn’t say anything about cutting off your ability to comment. I was just noting how I will be receiving the stupidity you are free to spout.

    Now I’m done.


  15. PeasantParty says:


    This is off-topic of the post, but wanted to know if you have anything on the US, China, Japan ruckus over the small islands? Russia just entered Japan air space. Makes me wonder if they too are trying to get ahold of some island occupation.

    Regarding the Bean above, it appears to have been soaked over night.

  16. Ken Muldrew says:

    From 50,000 ft, a system imaging visible light would have a minimum resolution of about 75 cm looking straight down (but there’s not much point in looking straight down, so the resolution will be a bit worse than that). An infrared sensor looking at wavelengths in the 400-900 micron range would be about 1000 times worse (75 m resolution). This is the diffraction limit and there is no way around it (with the caveat that if you know what you are looking at, then you can beat the diffraction limit; but you had better be sure, because artifacts will look like real things when you employ these tricks).

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