U.S. decides against making crash-prone drones run on nukes

Look, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's 1,000 pounds of fissionable nuclear material falling this way!

The U.S. military has apparently shelved the idea of developing a nuclear-powered drone aircraft that would be capable of staying in the air for months, but would pose so great a risk of those it might crash on that it was canceled due to "political conditions."

The project, allegedly underway at Sandia National Laboratories as part of a series of efforts to increase the duration of UAV flying time from "days to months," while increasing the amount of electricity available onboard by at least 200 percent, according to a June, 2011 summary of the project from Sandia.

The story broke after Steven Aftergood, an electrical engineer who works for the Federation of American Scientists, published the summary on his FAS blog Secrecy News.

The blog reports on changes in government policy on secret information and access to official records that are hidden, suppressed or difficult to find.

According to the summary of "Unmanned Air Vehicle Ultra-Persistence Research" (PDF), Sandia and Northrup Grumman collaborated on a project to reduce or eliminate restrictions on flight time due to fuel use and to make enough electricity available to drive high-power avionics, "payload systems" such as electronic countermeasure systems that jam radar or communications, or surveillance equipment to eavesdrop on cell-phone calls. The two were also responsible for making communication with the drones more reliable.

Several drones are lost both in testing and in combat areas every year after the radio connection between controller and drone was broken. Most famously, a CIA-operated version of America's most-advanced production UAV, the RQ-170 Sentinel crashed 140 miles inside Iran after the operators reportedly lost the radio signal that allowed them to control it.

During the project, engineers evaluated eight technologies to produce heat, three to convert power, two dual-cycle propulsion systems and one electrical generator, for UAVs of varying sizes.

Long-range UAVs would eliminate the need for many forward bases, most of the logistically complex process of refueling a plane in flight and reducing the high maintenance requirement for UAVs based near war zones.

The project was largely successful, though only theoretically.

All the work was done on CAD/CAM machines and using process analysis to estimate the impact on supply chains, the need for surveillance systems and other resources.

No systems were actually built, but the designs themselves passed at least the first few stages of analysis estimating effectiveness and cost-effectiveness that would have qualified it to be considered for development.

"As a result of this effort, UAVs were to be able to provide far more surveillance time and intelligence information while reducing the high cost of support activities," the summary read. "This technology was intended to create unmatched global capabilities to observe and preempt terrorist and weapon of mass destruction (WMD) activities.

“Unfortunately, none of the results will be used in the near-term or mid-term future,” the project summary stated.  “It was disappointing to all that the political realities would not allow use of the results." – Sandia/Grumman Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (#1714),quoted in Secrecy News, March 22, 2012

Beating around a very dangerous bush

The report never actually uses the word "nuclear," though the lead investigator is a specialist in nuclear propulsion and phrases such as "propulsion and power technologies that [go] well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies," and references to the decommissioning and disposal of fuel make clear that "there is little doubt about the topic under discussion," Aftergood wrote.

Despite coming up with design ideas they thought would work, the study's authors appear not to have thought very seriously about whether or how they could ever get a nuclear-powered drone even one step off the drawing board.

"The results will not be applied/implemented," they wrote, blaming unfavorable "political conditions" for not giving the little nuclear UAV its chance.

The report didn't say the political conditions were the kind that would result if an American nuclear-powered drone ever wandered away from its handlers and crashed in Iran, for example, where the government would be even more happy to receive the gift of American nuclear-fission generators than they were to receive a nearly intact version of its latest UAV.

Sandia didn't deny the existence of the project summary or specifically deny that nuclear propulsion might be involved (though it didn't confirm anything, either).

It issued a statement saying researchers at Sandia do a lot of work on very advanced technologies, often simply to explore the possibilities rather than as an earnest effort to produce as a weapon every question they try to solve or prototype they try to build.

"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."

The project ended in 2009, which is a good thing.

The Sentinel didn't go down until two years later. It would have been a shame if it had taken Sandia's new power plant with it.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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