A certain technology that could extend the mission duration and capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was favorably assessed last year by scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation. But they concluded regretfully that “current political conditions will not allow use of the results.”
The assessment was carried out to explore the feasibility of next generation UAVs. The objective was “to increase UAV sortie duration from days to months while increasing available electrical power at least two-fold,” according to a June 2011 Sandia project summary.
And that objective could have been achieved by means of the unidentified technology, which “would have provided system performance unparalleled by other existing technologies,” the project summary said.
“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. This technology was intended to create unmatched global capabilities to observe and preempt terrorist and weapon of mass destruction (WMD) activities.”
But it was all for nought.
“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.”
Not only that, but “none of the results can be shared openly with the public due to national security constraints.”
On close reading, it seems clear that the Sandia-Northrop project contemplated the use of nuclear technology for onboard power and propulsion.
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.
Interestingly, opposition to flying nuclear power sources in this case was internalized without needing to be expressed, and the authors were self-deterred from pursuing their own proposals. “The results will not be applied/implemented,” they stated flatly.
Meanwhile, integration of (conventional) unmanned aircraft systems into the National Airspace System will proceed, as mandated by Congress. On March 6, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a request for public comments on the pending designation of six UAS test sites around the country.
Last month, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and other public interest organizations petitioned the FAA “to conduct a rulemaking to address the threat to privacy and civil liberties that will result from the deployment of aerial drones within the United States.”
Update: Sandia National Laboratories issued the following statement regarding this story:
“Sandia is often asked to look at a wide range of solutions to the toughest technical challenges. 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.”