April 02, 2012, 5:14 PM — 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.
U.S. Air Force