FactCheck Social Media

‘Military drone patrol’ over Sydney is just an unidentified viral object

2021-07-19 16:49:05

The Statement

A post by an Australian Facebook user claims to show a military-style drone patrolling Sydney skies during the city’s COVID-19 lockdown.

The July 12 post shows two pictures purportedly taken at Bass Hill, in the city’s southwest. The words “UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) bass hill” appear on both images.

The post’s caption reads: “Captured Flown from Bankstown airport they are watching us big brother is watching unprecedented times 50 million dollar machine 40 metres in length unmanned this is the new Sydney the new world order we are doomed army is on its way people Marshall law (sic) around the corner,” the caption reads.

At the time of writing, the post had been shared more than 1100 times and attracted more than 320,000 views.

The July 12 Facebook post
 A post claims to show a military-style drone patrolling Sydney’s skies during lockdown. 

The Analysis

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, New South Wales police launched a controversial crackdown to target potential breaches of lockdown orders in southwest Sydney.

However, the drone photo in the Facebook post was not taken in Sydney – and is unrelated to the coronavirus restrictions.

A reverse image search of the post’s photo shows that the same image appeared online late last year, before Sydney’s current COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown. A Reddit post on October 11, 2020 by user “Gabriellinho10” shows the image. It was posted to the subreddit for the game Call Of Duty Mobile with the tag “humor” and caption, “Enemy UAV spotted”. UAVs frequently appear in the game.

The same Reddit user has posted other manipulated images showing video game elements in real-life scenarios with “humor” tags attached. Comments by other users on those posts indicate the Reddit user may be based in the Philippines.

After its appearance in the Reddit thread, the image was repeatedly used on Facebook and Twitter in various countries during October 2020. It was also used in November 2020 on a meme forum with the same layout as the Facebook post with a second cropped close-up of the drone.

Nigel Meadows, a director with the Asia Pacific RPAS Consortium, a Sydney-based consulting firm dedicated to unmanned aircraft, told AAP FactCheck the photo showed “a ‘Predator’ family remotely piloted aircraft (possibly a ‘Grey Eagle’) – made by General Atomics – a US company”.

“I can assure you that no such aircraft flies over Australian cities,” he said.

Images of the Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft closely resemble the pictures in the meme.

The post claims the aircraft is a “50 million dollar machine 40 metres in length” and adds that the “army is on its way”. However, the Australian Army uses the RQ-7B Shadow 200 for surveillance operations, a far smaller drone than that claimed in the post. It also bears little resemblance to the aircraft in the social media images.

A prototype of a larger 11.5 metre-long Boeing drone was presented to Australia last year but does not resemble the one in the photo, while General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones were ordered from the US for Australia in late April but are still reportedly several years away from use.

The Air Force has ordered several Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft, however these are not due to be operational until at least 2025. The Department of Defence did not respond to a request for comment.

When contacted by AAP FactCheck, NSW Police confirmed that the drone in the post’s photo was not used by state law enforcement.

“We don’t operate that type of drone nor have we deployed any of our own remotely piloted aircraft during lockdown anywhere in NSW,” a spokeswoman said in an email. Police use small surveillance drones for other operations.

Drones carrying giant  notes are flown over Sydney Harbour.
 Drones carry giant notes over Sydney Harbour during a promotion. 

The Verdict

The post falsely claims to include photos of a UAV recently patrolling over Sydney’s Bass Hill. In fact, the imagery has been in use since October 2020, when it was posted to a video game Reddit thread. The drone visible in the photos is not in use in Australia.

False – Content that has no basis in fact.

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