The drone carries full-motion video capture systems as well as sensors to detect airborne chemical signatures that might come from a nuclear-fuel development facility as well as cell-phone-network receptors that could allow it to eavesdrop on local wireless conversations, according to the LA Times.
Though the RQ-170s have been deployed for only two years, their sensors are already out of date, according to AviationWeek.
Newer versions of the video cams that are the RG-170s key asset can collect 65 times as much data, automated so it doesn't have to be monitored continually as current versions do.
The next generation – called the Argus –IS – will cover as much as 40 square kilometers in a single shot, with resolution equal to 15 centimeters of ground per pixel. That's enough to easily track individuals on foot as well as vehicles or buildings, according to Aviation Week.
Was drone part of cyberwar?
The question about the downed drone is not whether it was gathering intelligence on Iran's nuclear facilities –which have been a top U.S. intelligence-gathering priority for years.
The question is how this drone, on this mission, and the non-physical anti-aircraft-weapon damage that may have brought it down, plays into the ongoing cyber war between the U.S. and Iran, according to Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as quoted in the U.K.'s Daily Mail.
Spy-plane flyovers are purely routine compared to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotage inflicted by the Stuxnet computer virus and mysterious explosions at several Iranian nuclear sites in recent weeks.
"It does appear that there is a campaign of assassinations and cyber war, as well as the semi-acknowledged campaign of sabotage," Clawson told the Daily Mail. "It looks like the 21st century form of war."