New Iranian Surveillance Drones Likely, Expert Says

Iran's ability to spy on Israeli military could heighten nuke tensions

This image made from video released by the Israeli Defense Forces shows the downing of a drone that entered Israeli airspace in southern Israel, Oct. 6, 2012.
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Claims by the Iranian government that they snooped on Israeli military bases with an advanced surveillance drone are likely true, according to one expert.

An Iranian lawmaker claimed on Monday that they were able to retrieve information on sensitive Israeli military sites from an unmanned aerial vehicle before Israel shot it down earlier this month, according to an Associated Press report. The claim signals Iran has advanced its arsenal to include drones like this one, launched by Hezbollah in Lebanon, that can transmit surveillance information in-flight.

If true, this capability would serve as a warning against Israel launching a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

[RELATED: Police to Use Drones for Spying on Citizens]

"It is very possible Iran obtained images of the Israeli bases," says Kevin Kochersberger, a professor at Virginia Tech's Unmanned System Laboratory. "That technology is readily available commercially."

Retrieving information such as photographs is entirely possible for a country like Iran using a satellite communications modem, Kochersberger says, as well as access to the large network of satellites orbiting Earth that provides voice and data coverage, known as the Iridium network.

The Iranian drone program made headlines at the end of last year when an engineer claimed that Iran hijacked access to a CIA-run RQ-170 Sentinel drone and landed it inside the country. It is still unclear if the Iranians actually took control of the drone or if it crashed. Iranian photos emerged of the drone with a string of banners blocking its landing gear.

[REPORT: Iran Has Drone Pictures of Israeli Bases]

It is also unclear if the drone that Israel shot down on Oct. 6, nearly 20 minutes after flying deep into Israeli airspace from the southern Mediterranean coast, contains any of the RQ-170's technology. Iranian officials claimed at the time they would "reverse engineer" the unmanned aerial vehicle, though Kochersberger says that's impossible.

"It is difficult to put together a gas grill without instructions," he says. "Imagine recreating something as complex as a surveillance UAV without the manual."

UAVs like the Sentinel operate on hardware and software specifically designed for a mission and the many functions of the craft, he says.

"The combination of software and hardware represent a complex system, one that requires a detailed instruction manual to understand its operation," says Kochersberger.

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Iran has been hard at work developing drone technology over the last 10 years. In 2009, allied forces shot down a UAV inside the Iraqi border that officials believed was an Iranian-made Ababil 3.

The recent claims made by Iran come amid heightened tensions with Israel. The Sudanese government claimed last week that Israeli jets bombed a military factory south of Khartoum. A Satellite Sentinel Project report indicates that the explosion in a staging area with shipping containers was likely caused by an aerial raid.

This installation was a known stop on an arms route to the Gaza strip that Iran reportedly funds. Two Iranian warships subsequently docked in a Sudanese port, according to Associated Press reports, though Sudan denies that has anything to do with the factory explosions.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is currently in Israel overseeing the Austere Challenge 2012 military exercises, involving thousands of U.S. and Israeli troops. It is the largest ballistic missile defense exercise ever put together by the two countries.

Dempsey visited an Israel airbase that is participating in the exercise, a spokesman tells U.S. News, and met with President Shimon Peres, the minister of Defense and the Israeli service chiefs.

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  • Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com.