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Nuclear UAV drones could fly for months at a time


April 3, 2012

A General Atomics MQ-9 (aka Predator B, Reaper or Guardian) UAV drone's flight duration could be increased from days to months with the addition of a nuclear power source according to recent military research (Photo: Justin Ennis)

A General Atomics MQ-9 (aka Predator B, Reaper or Guardian) UAV drone's flight duration could be increased from days to months with the addition of a nuclear power source according to recent military research (Photo: Justin Ennis)

Nuclear-powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that would increase operational flight durations from days to months are a technological possibility today, according to a feasibility study undertaken last year by Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation. A nuclear power supply would additionally double the availability of electrical power to onboard systems, including weaponry, the study found.

The word nuclear appears nowhere in the project summary obtained and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), but there are numerous indications that this was indeed the prime power source under investigation. Though the project summary euphemistically refers to a focus on "power technologies that went well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies," the FAS identifies words such as "safeguards," "decommissioning and disposal," and "political conditions" that prevent such technology seeing the light of day (for now, at any rate) which seem to strongly suggest the examination of nuclear technology.

Further, Dr. Steven B. Dron, who was the project's lead investigator at Sandia is, as the FAS puts it, a "specialist in nuclear propulsion," who co-chaired a session titled Non-nuclear testing in support of nuclear thermal propulsion development at the 25th Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion in 2008.

In a response to the FAS story, Sandia does not flatly deny the investigation of nuclear propulsion systems for unmanned drones, but does stress the preliminary nature of the study. "Sandia is often asked to look at a wide range of solutions to the toughest technical challenges," it told the FAS. "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."

However, the summary does make clear that UAVs fitted with "alternative" power sources would "be able to provide far more surveillance time and intelligence information per mission," and that the "technical goals for the project were accomplished."

The report suggests that only political will swayed by public opinion stands in the way of nuclear-powered drones. "Unfortunately, none of the results will be used in the near-term or mid-term future," it says, adding that "political realities would not allow use of the results."

In its interpretation of the report the UK's Guardian asserts that opposition would stem from "the inherent dangers of either a crash - in effect turning the drone into a so-called dirty bomb - or of its nuclear propulsion system falling into the hands of terrorists or unfriendly powers." However, the anticipated political objection could additionally stem from ethical objections to the idea of what effectively amounts to a permanent surveillance presence (with potential strike capability) over foreign territories.

Source: FAS, via The Guardian

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

I don't think this is realistic as something any state would admit having, since it's unthinkable that the public anywhere would accept having such potential danger sneaking around over our heads. But I do think it's realistic that some assholes may consider it worth the risk trying to keep it secret. This may of course be in any country. I'm no US hater, even though I'm highly critical to much of it's politics and practice.

I don't like the idea of being watched all the time, especially not when the ones doing it are people I would punch in the face if I met them. Still the main objection is that putting nuclear stupidity up in the air is really a BAD idea. My hope is that those jerks considering it notice that cheaper and less harmful ways of achieving the same will be developed soon. Still bad enough probably, but at least without the risk of radioactive pollution anywhere. The jerks will of course claim that the risks are negligible, and we all trust that. Sure we do...

Stein Varjord

This presentl idea with nuclear powered drones is a bad idea. Didn't the Iranians just steal a UAVs by overriding it's signal strength and landing it under their control unscathed. So now the Pentagon 1 month later is saying, "lets load these UAV thingys up with nuclear power." Are you kidding me?

I am all for nuclear powerplants and nuclear propulsion for spacecraft, aircraft, and carriers (so long as those vehicles within the atmosphere have a person running them and not set on autopilot. The cost savings or need must be great to justify the risk. Having a drone do survallance longer instead of clocking the next shift of drones in a month earlier just to save a million here or there is not a high need. To have nuclear powered aircraft or aircraft carriers or subs that can deliver nuclear weapons are highly needed and are a huge cost savings.

Matt Fletcher

@Matt - I agree with everything you said, but the Iranians didn't land it unscathed, they did manage to take it over, but they couldn't deploy the landing gear, and had to land it on its belly...which ironically destroyed the imaging sensors...which were the most classified part of the jet. gotta love karma.

Derek Howe

Stein why do you think nuclear is dangerous? There are nuclear powered smoke detectors in our homes.. You could be feet away from one right now. And the reason why we use nuclear powered smoke detectors is because they are safer, cheaper and better then traditional batteries.

I really wish more things were nuclear powered.

Michael Mantion

The loss of the drone to Iran is one the reason I have been apposed to armed drones from the start. I do not want to give the kill/not kill decision to a computer is the other.

Give the drone an analogue autopilot with inertial navigation that disconnects the radio just after takeoff and reconnects it just before landing will prevent the drone from being taken over. Surveillance systems and weapons (For people stupid enough to think that it's a good idea) could still be operated remotely.

Nuclear powered aircraft have been possible since the mid 60s at the latest. The USofA Air Force program appears to have been designed to fail they chose the heavier, more complex, and less efficient approach of getting the energy into the engine.


@ Michael Mantion, you might want to check the batteries in that nuke powered smoke detector. The tiny amount of radioactive material in there is to ionize air as in oxygen and nitrogen, good article http://chemistry.about.com/cs/howthingswork/a/aa071401a.htm

Snarky article here: http://www.halfbakery.com/idea/Nuclear_20powered_20smoke_20detector

Michael Gene

Who says they don't have these already???

If it is in the public domain it has most likely been discounted as an untenable security risk

If it is a nonclassified study (With the Author unavailable for comment) isn't it likely that it has already been evaluated, or the results would definitely be classified.

Smoke detectors aren't Nuclear Powered they have an alpha particle smoke sensor, but have you noticed you have to replace the battery every so often... if it were nuclear powered it would run for a lifetime or more....

(Sure the Laser smoke detectors use more power (more battery changes) and aren't as sensitive to smoke (not really a bad thing, would reduce false alarms) )


So rather than shake hands of countries of governments we overthrough for their riches, oil, porcelain, gold, etc, that are rogue countries, we rather spy on them and talk about them like bad people. :/

Antony Stewart

This is a bad idea in the history of bad ideas. If one of these nuclear powered drones crashes, won't it trigger off a nuclear disaster like Fukusjima with radiation leakage forcing everyone to evacuate the crash site?

And if the drone is armed with missiles, the explosion could turn the on board reactor into a nuclear explosion.

Peter Chew

Dunno about this....

I researched into the entire history of the cold war nuclear drones / ram jets / air craft and while the limitations and risks of all the types of nuclear reactors were not examined, the inherent risks of nuclear power - being the old U235 / Plutonium pressurised water style of reactors were assessed as being a BAD deal - from the perspective of weight and shielding.

The unshielded or limited shielding nuclear ram jets / or "hot core" pure turbine jet driven drones were declared to be truly amazing but radioactively insane.

The limitations and "material facts" of nuclear power and the evolution of reactors and styles of cores, and the fissile materials used in them.... and the developments over time, and the HUGE military industrial budgets....

But this........ my mind is too saturated with information and I don't have the time right now to clarify what I can recall, but I would not be surprised that "if they don't know, we won't tell them" mind games still apply and that these nuclear powered drones are available and operational.

To have a drone on station for 6 months at a time....?


Mr Stiffy

I'm not worried about the dangers of the reactor core spliting on impact after crash, because these risks are easily got around, but having one land in enemy territory is like giving terrorists a gift of nuclear power, plus the president this would set would mean the Police and government would use these for Nanny state manipulation of the people. I like the idea, but fear what these would do in the worng hands greatly.

Jack Thompson

Let's presume these power systems are already in the field somewhere. Its likely that we'll see the unclassified documents 10 to 20 years after they have been retired or upon impact with the ground.


oh great, here's a good idea: let's make a bunch of flying dirty bombs, yeah!

the extended flight duration issue has already been solved with lightweight solar winged aircraft.

nuke powered reconnaissance is another example of the glamorous 50's love affair with nukes surviving to this day. it's an idiotic premise. no one knows what to do with the waste we have from nuke plants and missiles. how could it possibly be a good idea to fly unprotected nuclear materials all over the planet? they'd just be big, fat, juicy targets!


This has been done: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupolev_Tu-95LAL http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convair_NB-36

Would seem to me that existing military satellite capabilities would make this concept un-necessary.


@Matt Fletcher: They did research in the 50s for nuclear powered aircraft and with drones it is possible to do it, but the most likely thing they would use as a power source, and the safest thing would be a radioisotope system. NO nuclear chain reactions. Actually now that I think about it, the Russians and the US have flown and crashed nuclear reactors on rockets. We've designed reactors that survive re-entry intact. Personally I'd rather see this kind of technology go to the civilian market where everyone can benefit.

Gwyn Rosaire

Or it could be made of Thorium, which is what we should be distributing to all the countries that need neutron sources for research (or we should be giving them deuterium fusion reactors that don't produce net power output - so are not self sustaining - but put out PLENTY of neutrons for research - and can be built by a 15 year old). Anyway, I agree with you guys above, except I would put one more control on the drone mentioned above: a burn switch so that we can tell a drone that will probably loose contact to destroy everything but emergency landing parts. Not that we'll be able to use that every time, but it might save us some heart ache.

Charles Bosse

The danger of radiation is vastly overrated because because while only admitting to very low level releases of radiation on December 2, 1949 the Hanford nuclear weapon sight released between 8,000 and 11,000 curies of iodine-131 to test airborne detection equipment for finding soviet nuclear weapons sights. .............................................................................................................................

re; PeetEngineer

Satellite fly predictable orbits limiting their effectiveness, and the aircraft have higher resolution especially at high angles that increase the amount of air they are looking through.


re; kurt

Solar powered aircraft are slow where as an aircraft powered by a nuclear jet with months of loiter time can be supersonic even if it requires a chemical afterburner.

There are several ways to safely deal with nuclear waste if the green fascists would simply allow it.


Skynet is born ...

John Cournoyer

re; John Cournoyer

Skynet was software.


Maybe we should be asking ourselves why this is even needed.


Just remember: Scientific American rated the nuclear bomber project of the early 60's as THE WORST SCIENTIFIC BOONGOGGLE OF ALL TIME!

Over ONE BILLION 1960'S U.S. DOLLARS were spent on studies before it was noted that the smallest reactor available would be at least two times as large as the plane could handle.

With the F-35 program estimated as a TRILLION DOLLAR PROGRAM, can we really call this progress?


I am all for the progression of progressive aerospace but the parasitic losses of greed&manipulated fear are all about the abuse&exploitation of technology- not the rightful advancement&application of technology.

"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." -Albert Einstein

Now,it's no longer weapons alone. Extravagant,wasteful abuse of technological resources has extended to unlimited,infinite,unsupervised surveillance... and worse.


@slowburn: you said "There are several ways to safely deal with nuclear waste if the green fascists would simply allow it."

i don't see how labeling greens as fascists adds value or civility to the discussion.

would you mind specifying some sources of information supporting your assertion concerning safe methods of dealing with nuclear waste? thx!

as for supersonic needs, the article doesn't specify that as a design goal. instead it leans toward providing high loiter time. in that case solar wings and satellites can do a pretty good job already. this seems like a technology in search of a problem to solve, while ignoring the very real risks.

i'm just not seeing how a supersonic ground to air missile blowing one of these things up and in the process possibly vaporizing whatever radioisotope power source is on board, or a simple crash upon landing, or an accident in the fueling supply chain, or an accident in the decommissioning chain, or any of numerous other scenarios, is worth the risk, even if it can be proven that nuclear waste is safely disposable over many eons.


I was thinking this must be an April fools prank until I checked the date. A radioisotope power supply that is considered so risky that NASA hardly even uses it any more. And Grumman wants to put in an airplane that can be vaporized by a surface to air missile, which would then release a dirty bomb's worth of plutonium shrapnel on the locals, their homes, farms, and towns? This is way worse than stupid. This is like crazy and reckless getting drunk and having a baby.

One more minor problem with this plan that I am fairly sure the wizened PhD's at Grumman didn't think about. Since we agreed to stop making Plutonium via international treaty a long time ago, there is not a lot of the stuff around any more. So we can either crank up the breeder reactors and violate the treaty - the Russians & Chinese would be charmed, I'm sure - or, well, I don't know what. Maybe buy it from the North Koreans?


re; kurt

We can take all the waste that is not fuel, or medically useful and bombard it with neutrinos until all that is left is short half life elements that decay into non radioactive elements like iodine-131 wait a few years and toss it into the nearest trash can unless it turns out to be valuable.


re; mlewus

You can not do Uranium fission without producing Plutonium


re; mlewus

NASA reduced it use of radioisotope power supply because of the lawsuits from the green fascists.


@slowburn: neutrinos? i thought neutrinos didn't do much interacting with matter. maybe you meant neutrons? if so that's pretty cool and why doesn't the industry do this already for all those leaking barrels and concrete caissons? it would be awesome to be able to actually decompose all the tons of radiating waste that is hanging around. even with this possibility, however, the other extremely risky life cycle safety issues remain.

on another subject, i see from your comment to mlewus concerning "green fascists" that you still believe derisive, inflamatory name-calling is a part of civil argumentation. sorry, but you are misinformed. or maybe you just don't believe in civility. oh, well.


What's being discussed is not reactors, but radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). While the classic RTG, used for deep space probes, uses plutonium, mainly for it's long "half life", other radioisotopes can be used. Some of these materials have short active lives, and decay rapidly to lead or some other non-radioactive material, and are not "weaponizable". Most of the active short-life isotopes emit mostly alpha radiation, which can't penetrate even a t-shirt, so there's no danger to anyone being near one of these types of RTG. However, the very active isotopes do emit quite a bit of heat, which can be used to drive a heat engine like a Stirling, which is (I'm guessing) the idea being discussed. Even with short active lives, such a system could enable a drone to fly for several months. Solar power isn't yet at the useful payload stage, exemplified by a Boeing proposal requiring a plane with a 500 foot wingspan in order to have enough surface area for the solar array to produce the required power.

Pat Kelley

@Michael Mantion Smoke detectors are not nuclear powered, they use miniscule amounts of radioactive substance to detect the smoke. Not the same thing as generatingpower!

Brian M

@Pat Kelley - be interesting to know what the power to weight ratio is of these devices. Possibly using direct generation of electricity(?) (like a nuclear pace maker battery) rather than adding a sterling heat engine?

Brian M
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