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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Nuclear drones

Nuclear Drones: Are Warfare Rules about to change once again?

Amount of time the future Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or Drone) will be able to spend in the air without refuel could be measured in months instead of hours, that is 100 plus times better than the best petroleum engine can deliver today. These could be the drones propelled by the electric motor and powered by the compact atomic reactor. The idea of nuclear drones is not a novelty, neither it is a technologically challenged ambition, but has been in works since mid-1980s. Northrop Grumman, which has worked with the US government on related projects for a long time, has patented a drone powered by the portable helium reactor back in 1986. There are atomic reactor powered aircraft designs going back into 1950s. The new study conducted last year by Northrop Grumman Systems and Sandia National Laboratories - US Government Nuclear Research Agency - has officially summarized a quarter of a century of research done in this area. 

Researchers from Sandia Laboratories have developed and drawn up plans for drone capable to reach any region of the world and stay in the air for months without refueling. 
Project summary published by Sandria and defense contractor Northrop Grumman states that they were commissioned to increase flying time from days to months while doubling the power output of the system. The research into so called "ultra-persistence technologies" was set out to solve few problems specific to drones: weak communication capacities, short air time over a target and insufficient power generating capacities. After looking into numerous power generating systems the researchers settled on nuclear solution. The research summary also concludes that the results "were to be used in the next generation of unmanned air vehicles used for military and intelligence applications", where they "would have provided system performance unparalleled by other existing technologies". It claims that no hardware was ever built or tested and that "none of the results will be used in the near-term or mid-term future". It is clear that political factor will be the major constraint on a way of any future attempt to lift atomic reactor over our heads.The political atmosphere influenced by the public opinion stands in the way of further development of nuclear drones. The fear of terrorists taking over the aircraft and using it as a dirty bomb or even worse is a hottest topic among whistle-blowers.


Potential impact the implementation of nuclear drones will cause can be easily estimated by comparing their projected specifications to those of existing aircraft such as the MQ-9, which is dominantly used today in operations against insurgents. Currently, the Reaper carries about four tons of fuel and munitions and can stay in the air for 14 hours fully loaded. The same drone powered by the compact reactor can spend three or more months in midair, which amounts to 3000 or so hours. Nuclear drones will have 'one-charge' in-the-air time 100 to 200 times longer than conventionally powered airframes - that is something to consider! Nuclear drones will be able to carry more weapons and equipment, their geographical reach will extend around the globe allowing to simplify ground support infrastructure and the amount of power produced by the energy module will be sufficient to support electric solid-state laser systemsThe further evolution of UAVs, however, will inevitably lead to decrease of their cost and increase of their commercial accessibility - several years from now we might see mid-level drones available on the eBay with second market surveillance and weapons upgrades provided in every savvy corner of the world.

The US Politics historically have been inconsistent but force powerful enough to redefine the future paths of the technology-in-works. Twenty first century has revealed a new balance between conservative and liberal forces in the US and the rest of the world. Occasionally, some people of influence with limited or no strategic vision of the subject but with good handle on public opinion caused damage to the progress in this area. Public outrage against the nuclear energy initiatives in 1970s is one of the examples of that damage. Today some believe that the increasing use of drones for military and civilian purposes could lead to disaster. True, drones are somewhat less safe than manned aircraft and tend to have a control latency caused by the signal delay, since the drone pilot often is located thousands of miles away from the plane but all these risks can be mitigated, managed and minimized to a minimum. At least drone incident rate is not much worse than car crash rate, where people die.

Meantime, somewhere around 70% of the electric power in France today is generated at the cost of about 10 cents on 1 American dollar spend to generate conventional energy, not a secret to the energy industry! French did not allow the nuclear programs to get buried when/if incidents took place, instead they have focused on research, and today France is arguably a world leader in atomic power production. Countries like China are also known for their decisive behavior when it comes to strategic questions, showing us the new kind of decision-making dynamics. The nuclear drone is just the beginning, atomic energy is 10 to 30 times cheaper than the next cheapest form of energy produced today - so quite a few forward looking people see atomic power as a dominant energy source in the aerospace of the future.

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