Eyes in the Skies (On the Prize)

I read a story on the Huffington Post last week, in reference to an Israeli reconnaisance drone. The author made the claim that these UAVs could “allow their operators to read a name badge 40,000 feet below, at night.”

I’ve had a passing interest in the science of astronomy and optics for some time, and a little back-of-the envelope mathematics told me that this was absolutely impossible. (See my HuffPo comment for more details.) The short answer is that in order to see, and read, half in high letters from eight miles away requires a lens far bigger than could be carried in a single-engined aircraft.

No 48" telescope lens here...

What was interesting was that the author of the HuffPo article actually followed up my comment – acknowledging the correctness of my math, while assuring me that his source for the information was indeed qualified. He went on to speculate that maybe the secret military technology had moved beyond what was believed possible by civilian scientists. (It couldn’t possibly have done so.)

A little more research into the Israeli IAI Heron¬†reveals a couple of potential motives for this “unintentional on purpose” sort of misinformation: The maker of this UAV is actively engaged in selling it to a variety of foreign governments, including India, Turkey, France and Australia.

The physics regarding what an optical surveillance system can, and cannot, do are extremely well established. And while the precise capabilities of advanced military hardware are usually closely held secrets – foreign military establishments employ multitudes of technically smart people who are just as capable of separating the hyperbole from the possible. So its unlikely that the Israelis put out the “read a nametag from the stratosphere” story to fool anyone in the Iranian military.

The Israeli company that makes the Heron has released a series of YouTube videos of the drone, complete with catchy upbeat musical scores. And while these videos don’t make the exact claim about reading nametags, the purpose is pretty clear: They want avergae military tech enthusiasts to become enamored with the drone’s technology. Making it that much easier for military procurement people in say, Australia or France, to justify their purchase. The actualy technological impossibility of reading nametags from miles away notwithstanding.

UAVs have become a huge business in the years since 9/11. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, while spy satellites are very good at locating and identifying military targets (a parked armored division, an airbase, a chemical weapons facility) – they aren’t very good at spying on terrorists. (Two guys talking in a car. A couple of huts in the desert.) And secondly, a spy satellite costs hundreds of millions of dollars to put into service. And sometimes they don’t work at all. An Israel-made drone, bought off the shelf for a few million, suddenly looks like a bargain.

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