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Nuclear-Powered Drones? Report Suggests Yes, but Here's Why They've Been Shelved

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"Currently, none of the results can be shared openly with the public..."

  • Federation of American Scientists say Sandia National Laboratories developed technology that would allow for nuclear-powered UAVs. 
  • Sandia's report, written in June 2011, states the tech would "provide far more surveillance time and intelligence information per mission while reducing the high cost of support activities."
  • Results from Sandia's research are not being used nor are they being made publicly available.
  •  "It was disappointing to all that the political realities would not allow use of the results."

According to a new report obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, all signs point to a national laboratory developing nuclear technology to power unmanned aerial vehicles, but before the tech could ever be implemented, the results were prevented from being released due to “current political conditions."

FAS's Secrecy News blog reports that Sandia National Laboratories was working on developing technology that would “increase UAV sortie duration from days to months while increasing available electrical power at least two-fold.” Gizmodo simplifies this saying it would produce "ultra-persistent drone flight that didn't require traditional fuels."

The report states itself:

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

While the project summary, authored in 2011, does not come out and say "nuclear," there are several indicators pointing to it, according to sources reviewing the document. FAS has more:

The project summary, which refers to “propulsion and power technologies that [go] well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies,” does not actually use the word “nuclear.” But with unmistakable references to “safeguards,” “decommissioning and disposal,” and those unfavorable “political conditions,” there is little doubt about the topic under discussion.

Furthermore, the project’s lead investigator at Sandia, the aptly named Dr. Steven B. Dron, is a specialist in nuclear propulsion, among other things. He co-chaired a session at the 2008 Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion at the University of New Mexico.

The Atlantic Wire's Adam Clark Estes says there are two ways to take in this news:

One, good for the government scientists for deciding not to build a flying, unmanned nuclear power plant. (Bear in mind that we don't actually know if they've continued work on the project since last June.) Two, let's make this a teaching moment. Last December when CIA lost a drone over Iran was a teaching moment, too. Just imagine if it had an American-made nuclear reactor inside of it.

(Related: Iran mocks Obama after he asks for downed drone back, says 'he begs to give him back his toy plane')

Gizmodo also points out the relatively high crash rate for drones that may make nuclear-powered versions a bad idea:

Compared to conventional airplanes, they crash a lot. Rough weather, communications errors, software glitches — sometimes we don't even know what brings down a drone. But they go down, and because there's no human inside, it's never considered much of a loss. They're (relatively) cheap! They're (relatively) disposable! But with nuclear fuel inside, they'd be categorically dangerous.

(Related: Another drone goes down raising speculation about drone virus from Sept.) 

According to the report, this technology being implemented in the long run is not out of the realm of possibility:

None of the results are currently in use by DOE and it is doubtful that they will be used in the near-term or mid-term future. Currently, none of the results can be shared openly with the public due to national security constraints.

[...]

[Northrop Grumman Corporation Integrated Systems, Unmanned Systems] (NGIS UMS) was quite pleased with the results of analysis and design although it was disappointing to all that the political realities would not allow use of the results.

Do you have any thoughts on this drone technology that never truly made it out of the research stage?

Update: Sandia has said in a statement that the project ended in 2009. A spokesperson for the lab said in an email to the Blaze that Sandia is "often asked to look at a wide range of solutions to the toughest technical challenges." This project specifically was "highly theoretical and very conceptual." The results were to test the feasibility of this technology and "no hardware was ever built or tested."

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