Let’s Talk About The Mysterious Drone Photographed Over California

Analysis on the original photo seems to suggest that the image is genuine. (Image credit: @rubenhofs). In the box, the tweet by journalist Steve Trimble that made the shot viral (via @TheDEWLine)

Mysterious Aircraft Thought to be RQ-180 or “Polecat” Drone Derivative Posted on Social Media – Then Disappears.

An interesting photo of what could be either the classified Northrop Grumman RQ-180 drone, or the Lockheed Martin P-175 Polecat drone, surfaced briefly on Instagram late Sunday, November 1, 2020, then disappeared. The original poster, Rob Kolinsky of Sundowner Studios on Instagram, replaced the image with a graphic that reads, “[REDACTED]”. Kolinsky added this comment after removing his photo, “Lol!! Until I dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘T’s!! Then the picture will return!”

Kolinsky wrote in the original Instagram post, “This thing flew over my house several weeks ago and I still have yet to identify it! It’s shaped like a B-21 (in illustrations) but was painted white. Mystery! I was not going to post it but I thought that if it were really classified, they wouldn’t be flying it in broad daylight like this. Can anyone lend a hand in identifying her?” Kolinsky did not specify the date, time or specific location that the photo was taken in his original post, or the equipment he used to take the photo.

Before Kolinsky could remove the image, it was screen captured and has been reposted on several internet groups, where most comments seem to support the idea that this may be the enigmatic RQ-180 or the P-175 Polecat.

Soon after the photo appeared, then disappeared to become more or less viral, Aviation Week reporters Steve Trimble and Guy Norris wrote that, “A picture has surfaced showing a new aircraft generally matching Aviation Week’s understanding of the shape of what is commonly known as the RQ-180 unmanned aircraft system”:

The Aviationist.com has messaged Mr. Rob Kolinsky on Instagram to interview him about the photo, but we have not yet received a response.

The photo, which was claimed to be taken, “…in California just north of Edwards [AFB]”, shows an aircraft trailing two prominent contrails, suggesting the altitude of the aircraft at the time the photo was taken was in excess of approximately 25,000 ft. Contrails require moist, cold air to freeze the water vapor expelled during normal jet engine combustion. Considering the altitude of the aircraft at the time the photo was taken, the size of the aircraft in the photo may be significant. Published estimates of the wingspan of the RQ-180 drone claim it may be as large as 130 ft. Estimates of the wingspan of the Polecat suggest it is about 90 ft.

The U.S. Air Force does not acknowledge the existence of the RQ-180 drone, but a number of factors seem to support theories of its existence and even operational deployment. One theory that supports the operational deployment of the RQ-180 is the reduction in the number of RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drones. It’s possible a newer, more capable RQ-180 may have taken over missions previously assigned to RQ-4s.

Forbes magazine reporter David Axe is another keen-eyed journalist who recognized the significance of the new Kolinsky photo. Late Sunday night Axe wrote, “The Air Force reportedly tested the roughly 170-feet-wingspan RQ-180 at Groom Lake, part of the Area 51 complex in Nevada. By early 2020 the RQ-180 apparently was so well-established in Air Force service that the flying branch was comfortable cutting its fleet of non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk drones.”

According to reports from both David Axe of Forbes and Trimble and Norris of Aviation Week, the highly classified, low-observable RQ-180 may have first flown as early as 2010. Once operational, it provided the Air Force with a stealthy capability to penetrate enemy air defenses and collect intelligence with near-impunity. Norris suggests, “The service last possessed that capability in the late 1990s in the form of the Mach-three SR-71 Blackbird”.

Some analysts suggest most image-based intelligence gathering may be conducted by satellites now, but other intelligence gathering, such as signals intelligence and gathering of atmospheric samples, cannot be done from satellites outside the atmosphere, making an atmospheric intelligence gathering platform still relevant.

Observers of the photo on internet forums have made some interesting insights about the Kolinsky photo. Some suggest the planform of the aircraft in Kolinsky’s image is nearly identical to the Polecat. A revived P-175 (the original one crashed in 2007) or a testbed based on it? Maybe.

Others have pointed out that, if it were a “black” project (hence the RQ180), it would not cruise at contrail altitude and in plain daylight, over an area where many aircraft spotters and photographers operate.

Others have highlighted that a secret UAS wouldn’t be painted white but the renderings posted by AW&ST in 2013 show the UAS painted overall white and another secretive drone, the RQ-170, is painted similarly. Moreover, according to Guy Norris, “A local nickname around Edwards AFB for the RQ-180 is the “Great White Bat”–or sometimes “Shikaka”–a fictional sacred white bat from the 1995 movie Ace Ventura 2.”

While the color of the aircraft might also be altered by the sunlight or post-processing of the image, it’s indeed weird that the aircraft was flown during daylight hours. For this reason someone suggested the photo might also have been taken years ago, during a Polecat test…

One thing missing from the litany of conspiracy theories about the photo is the narrative that the aircraft may be a classified project that experienced an in-flight issue or emergency and was accidentally exposed to public areas for any number of technical reasons.

Based on previous appearances of interesting flying object photos, such as the highly circulated “flying Dorito” photos taken in Texas and Kansas back in 2014, the Air Force’s silence on such matters tends to be deafening. Because of this, it’s unlikely we’ll receive any official acknowledgement of whatever is in Rob Kolinsky’s new photo.

But Kolinsky’s photo is a better-quality image than most of the “flying Dorito” and even the old, August 1989 “Aurora Sighting” sketches by oil rig worker Chris Gibson.

The use of open-source photo-analysis and reverse search assets such as Tineye.com and Fotoforensics.com suggest the image is, at least, unique and unaltered by image processing software, adding to the notion that this is a genuine photo.

This, combined with some solid reporting by very well informed journalists like Trimble and Norris make the ephemeral Instagram photo more credible as a first-ever RQ-180 sighting or some other little-known and fascinating appearance probably not meant for public eyes. This, of course, makes it all the more fascinating.

What we know about the RQ-180.

In the Dec. 9, 2013 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Senior Pentagon Editor Amy Butler and Senior International Defense Editor Bill Sweetman revealed the existence of the RQ-180, a secret unmanned aerial system (UAS), designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, and scheduled to be operational with the U.S. Air Force by 2015.

Developed by Northrop Grumman since 2008-2009, the stealthy RQ-180 is designed to operate in “contested” or “denied” airspace, as opposed to the non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk that are intended for “permissive” scenarios.

In their analysis back then, Sweetman and Butler said: “It is similar in size and endurance to the Global Hawk, which weighs 32,250 lb. and can stay on station for 24 hr. 1,200 nm from its base. The much smaller RQ-170 is limited to 5-6 hr. of operation. […] The aircraft uses a version of Northrop’s stealthy “cranked-kite” design, as does the X-47B, with a highly swept centerbody and long, slender outer wings. Northrop Grumman engineers publicly claimed (before the launch of the classified program) that the cranked-kite is scalable and adaptable, in contrast to the B-2’s shape, which has an unbroken leading edge. The RQ-180’s centerbody length and volume can be greater relative to the vehicle’s size.”

Aviation Week worked with artist Ronnie Olsthoorn to construct concept images of the RQ-180 based on its attributes, including its “cranked kite” design, but these artworks seem to be somehow different from what has been photographed over California in mid October.

The Aviation Week article by Trimble and Norris posted yesterday also states that “The “white bat” symbol has also appeared as the badge for the 74th Reconnaissance Squadron. The unit is thought to have become a training squadron for the RQ-180. It is understood to have been established earlier this year, following the 2018 activation of Detachment 5 of the 9th Operations Group at Beale AFB, California.”


About Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.