Drones

Nuclear UAV drones could fly for months at a time

A General Atomics MQ-9 (aka Predator B, Reaper or Guardian) UAV drone's flight duration could be increased from days to months with the addition of a nuclear power source according to recent military research (Photo: Justin Ennis)
A General Atomics MQ-9 (aka Predator B, Reaper or Guardian) UAV drone's flight duration could be increased from days to months with the addition of a nuclear power source according to recent military research (Photo: Justin Ennis)
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A General Atomics MQ-9 (aka Predator B, Reaper or Guardian) UAV drone's flight duration could be increased from days to months with the addition of a nuclear power source according to recent military research (Photo: Justin Ennis)
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A General Atomics MQ-9 (aka Predator B, Reaper or Guardian) UAV drone's flight duration could be increased from days to months with the addition of a nuclear power source according to recent military research (Photo: Justin Ennis)

Nuclear-powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that would increase operational flight durations from days to months are a technological possibility today, according to a feasibility study undertaken last year by Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation. A nuclear power supply would additionally double the availability of electrical power to onboard systems, including weaponry, the study found.

The word nuclear appears nowhere in the project summary obtained and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), but there are numerous indications that this was indeed the prime power source under investigation. Though the project summary euphemistically refers to a focus on "power technologies that went well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies," the FAS identifies words such as "safeguards," "decommissioning and disposal," and "political conditions" that prevent such technology seeing the light of day (for now, at any rate) which seem to strongly suggest the examination of nuclear technology.

Further, Dr. Steven B. Dron, who was the project's lead investigator at Sandia is, as the FAS puts it, a "specialist in nuclear propulsion," who co-chaired a session titled Non-nuclear testing in support of nuclear thermal propulsion development at the 25th Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion in 2008.

In a response to the FAS story, Sandia does not flatly deny the investigation of nuclear propulsion systems for unmanned drones, but does stress the preliminary nature of the study. "Sandia is often asked to look at a wide range of solutions to the toughest technical challenges," it told the FAS. "The research on this topic was highly theoretical and very conceptual. The work only resulted in a preliminary feasibility study and no hardware was ever built or tested. The project has ended."

However, the summary does make clear that UAVs fitted with "alternative" power sources would "be able to provide far more surveillance time and intelligence information per mission," and that the "technical goals for the project were accomplished."

The report suggests that only political will swayed by public opinion stands in the way of nuclear-powered drones. "Unfortunately, none of the results will be used in the near-term or mid-term future," it says, adding that "political realities would not allow use of the results."

In its interpretation of the report the UK's Guardian asserts that opposition would stem from "the inherent dangers of either a crash - in effect turning the drone into a so-called dirty bomb - or of its nuclear propulsion system falling into the hands of terrorists or unfriendly powers." However, the anticipated political objection could additionally stem from ethical objections to the idea of what effectively amounts to a permanent surveillance presence (with potential strike capability) over foreign territories.

Source: FAS, via The Guardian

31 comments
Stein Varjord
I don't think this is realistic as something any state would admit having, since it's unthinkable that the public anywhere would accept having such potential danger sneaking around over our heads. But I do think it's realistic that some assholes may consider it worth the risk trying to keep it secret. This may of course be in any country. I'm no US hater, even though I'm highly critical to much of it's politics and practice. I don't like the idea of being watched all the time, especially not when the ones doing it are people I would punch in the face if I met them. Still the main objection is that putting nuclear stupidity up in the air is really a BAD idea. My hope is that those jerks considering it notice that cheaper and less harmful ways of achieving the same will be developed soon. Still bad enough probably, but at least without the risk of radioactive pollution anywhere. The jerks will of course claim that the risks are negligible, and we all trust that. Sure we do...
Matt Fletcher
This presentl idea with nuclear powered drones is a bad idea. Didn't the Iranians just steal a UAVs by overriding it's signal strength and landing it under their control unscathed. So now the Pentagon 1 month later is saying, "lets load these UAV thingys up with nuclear power." Are you kidding me? I am all for nuclear powerplants and nuclear propulsion for spacecraft, aircraft, and carriers (so long as those vehicles within the atmosphere have a person running them and not set on autopilot. The cost savings or need must be great to justify the risk. Having a drone do survallance longer instead of clocking the next shift of drones in a month earlier just to save a million here or there is not a high need. To have nuclear powered aircraft or aircraft carriers or subs that can deliver nuclear weapons are highly needed and are a huge cost savings.
Derek Howe
@Matt - I agree with everything you said, but the Iranians didn't land it unscathed, they did manage to take it over, but they couldn't deploy the landing gear, and had to land it on its belly...which ironically destroyed the imaging sensors...which were the most classified part of the jet. gotta love karma.
Michael Mantion
Stein why do you think nuclear is dangerous? There are nuclear powered smoke detectors in our homes.. You could be feet away from one right now. And the reason why we use nuclear powered smoke detectors is because they are safer, cheaper and better then traditional batteries. I really wish more things were nuclear powered.
Slowburn
The loss of the drone to Iran is one the reason I have been apposed to armed drones from the start. I do not want to give the kill/not kill decision to a computer is the other. Give the drone an analogue autopilot with inertial navigation that disconnects the radio just after takeoff and reconnects it just before landing will prevent the drone from being taken over. Surveillance systems and weapons (For people stupid enough to think that it's a good idea) could still be operated remotely. Nuclear powered aircraft have been possible since the mid 60s at the latest. The USofA Air Force program appears to have been designed to fail they chose the heavier, more complex, and less efficient approach of getting the energy into the engine.
Michael Gene
@ Michael Mantion, you might want to check the batteries in that nuke powered smoke detector. The tiny amount of radioactive material in there is to ionize air as in oxygen and nitrogen, good article http://chemistry.about.com/cs/howthingswork/a/aa071401a.htm Snarky article here: http://www.halfbakery.com/idea/Nuclear_20powered_20smoke_20detector
MD
Who says they don't have these already??? If it is in the public domain it has most likely been discounted as an untenable security risk If it is a nonclassified study (With the Author unavailable for comment) isn't it likely that it has already been evaluated, or the results would definitely be classified. Smoke detectors aren't Nuclear Powered they have an alpha particle smoke sensor, but have you noticed you have to replace the battery every so often... if it were nuclear powered it would run for a lifetime or more.... (Sure the Laser smoke detectors use more power (more battery changes) and aren't as sensitive to smoke (not really a bad thing, would reduce false alarms) )
Antony Stewart
So rather than shake hands of countries of governments we overthrough for their riches, oil, porcelain, gold, etc, that are rogue countries, we rather spy on them and talk about them like bad people. :/
Peter Chew
This is a bad idea in the history of bad ideas. If one of these nuclear powered drones crashes, won't it trigger off a nuclear disaster like Fukusjima with radiation leakage forcing everyone to evacuate the crash site? And if the drone is armed with missiles, the explosion could turn the on board reactor into a nuclear explosion.
Mr Stiffy
Dunno about this.... I researched into the entire history of the cold war nuclear drones / ram jets / air craft and while the limitations and risks of all the types of nuclear reactors were not examined, the inherent risks of nuclear power - being the old U235 / Plutonium pressurised water style of reactors were assessed as being a BAD deal - from the perspective of weight and shielding. The unshielded or limited shielding nuclear ram jets / or "hot core" pure turbine jet driven drones were declared to be truly amazing but radioactively insane. The limitations and "material facts" of nuclear power and the evolution of reactors and styles of cores, and the fissile materials used in them.... and the developments over time, and the HUGE military industrial budgets.... But this........ my mind is too saturated with information and I don't have the time right now to clarify what I can recall, but I would not be surprised that "if they don't know, we won't tell them" mind games still apply and that these nuclear powered drones are available and operational. To have a drone on station for 6 months at a time....? Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.
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