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The Military Technology

Coming To a War Near You: Nuclear Powered Drones 202

Posted by samzenpus
from the what-could-possible-go-wrong? dept.
An anonymous reader writes "American scientists and engineers are researching a new generation of UAV's that would be nuclear-powered. Why do this? They would have the capacity to stay over a target area for months and only be limited by the ordinance they could drop on a potential foe. They would be similar to a nuclear attack submarine but not limited to the amount of food on-board. The article notes: 'The blueprints for the new drones, which have been developed by Sandia National Laboratories – the U.S. government's principal nuclear research and development agency – and defense contractor Northrop Grumman, were designed to increase flying time "from days to months" while making more power available for operating equipment, according to a project summary published by Sandia,' the paper reported."
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Coming To a War Near You: Nuclear Powered Drones

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  • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @06:28PM (#39592027)

    Welcome our nuclear powered flying overlords.

    • My only question, is why use nuclear power when you can go lighter than air instead?

      • Re:I for one.... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by scarboni888 (1122993) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @07:06PM (#39592417)

        I suspect lighter than air technology has less capability for transferring wealth from the poor to the rich and therefore is a non-starter / invalid to the successful continuation of the status quo.

        • Re:I for one.... (Score:4, Insightful)

          by causality (777677) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @07:24PM (#39592585)

          I suspect lighter than air technology has less capability for transferring wealth from the poor to the rich and therefore is a non-starter / invalid to the successful continuation of the status quo.

          You know, one of the most insidious and diabolical tricks the rulers ever pulled was (through the media they own) to make into a popular notion something so close to the truth of the matter, that the person who accepts it as truth will never see what's actually going on.

          Don't let the concern about wealth and wealth envy distract you. It's not about transferring wealth. The people who make things happen already have enough wealth to secure a high standard of living for the next 20 generations of their descendants. They have wealth in effectively limitless quantities.

          It's about power. It's about transferring more and more power from the masses to the ruling elite. Money is involved only because money is a form of power; it is economic power. Old-style slaves had to be fed and housed; economic slaves will feed and house themselves. That's why it is not just money.

          It is also increasingly intrusive government, declining privacy, demonization of things like guns that are also a form of power, demonization of things like drugs that tend to alter conscious enough to make people see things differently and not through the media-defined lenses, attacks on the family and on religion because those demand loyalty to something other than the state, control of the education system so that childhood immaturities extend well into adulthood, conditioned helplessness instead of independence, obsession with group identity and ignorance of individuality, promotion of left/right either-or thinking, unreasonable laws and burdensome tax codes, marginalization of the tiny minority who can see what's wrong with this, etc.

          You really, really want to put a population under your thumb, you subject them to a blitz by throwing all of these at them at once. Then you supply them with charismatic, popular, almost Messianic leaders who claim to understand them. They fall for that one every time, as though telling the truth required slick presentation and the great speaking skill to sway the crowds.

          • Wow... where are my mod points when I need them? +1 Insightful to you, good sir!

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward

            "demonization of things like guns that are also a form of power"
            How so when the NRA is one of the nation's biggest lobbying groups and most of Congress is in their pocket? Soon they will push to allow prisoners to have guns.

            "burdensome tax codes"
            Sorry you have to pay to maintain a society. Even at a poker game everyone has to ante up whether they win or lose.

            "attacks on...religion"
            Organized religion has been on a quest for power itself for thousands of years. Don't make it look like a victim.

            "obsession w

            • Re:I for one.... (Score:5, Interesting)

              by Ihmhi (1206036) <i_have_mental_health_issues@yahoo.com> on Friday April 06, 2012 @01:04AM (#39594719)

              "demonization of things like guns that are also a form of power"
              How so when the NRA is one of the nation's biggest lobbying groups and most of Congress is in their pocket? Soon they will push to allow prisoners to have guns.

              Sorry, no. This is patently ridiculous.

              Although, perhaps you meant "ex-convicts". I actually think that maybe they should be allowed to have guns. What happened to "you've served your time, now rejoin society as a regular, productive person"? Somewhere along the way we created this label of "ex-con" and used it to take away the rights of people unfortunate enough to land in jail.

          • by pooh666 (624584)

            The people who make things happen already have enough wealth to secure a high standard of living for the next 20 generations of their descendants. They have wealth in effectively limitless quantities.

            That didn't work out so well for Genghis Khan. Ok there was a the golden hord, but...

            • I can't tell if you were going for the pun, or whether you really don't know the difference between a "horde" (mob of warriors) or "hoard" (stack of loot).

              In either case, fail.

            • by Evtim (1022085)

              You mean it did not work for a man whose genes can be found in 8% of the population of Asia? What exactly did not work for him?

              BTW, it is said that only during the days of the Mongol empire a virgin could walk all the way alone from the one end of the empire to the other and remain a virgin. I'd say this guy left his mark in the world, no?

          • Re:I for one.... (Score:4, Insightful)

            by alreaud (2529304) <alreaud@happycattech.com> on Thursday April 05, 2012 @09:13PM (#39593361)
            Great dissertation. Old school idea, though, of Illuminati / Freemasonry / Mormonism.

            But to what end? So you have control of everything, to argue hypothetically. Then what? You've established the worldwide government, religious or not, run by elitists, who just happen to still have to drop their drawers to poop, unless they are descendent's of Cuthulu. What is the master plan of the New World Order past conquering everything? If it's the same old bullshit, then they just wasted our collective time.

            Or is their plan to implement the Georgia Guide Stones? What is really the master plan? I'd humbly advise the "great ones" who wish to implement the plan of the New World Order that they should pay heed to and meditate upon Puma Punku and what it says if you're open to reading between the lines.

            One final morsel for thought: If I were a galactic civilization, I would keep the human race safely contained on the planet like a nasty plague by whatever means necessary, including sending them back to the stone age. Just because of the way we roll...
            • by dokc (1562391)
              Power is addictive like narcotics. After every shot they need a bigger dose too feel high. You can't explain that using "rational" arguments. They are bunch of junkies ready to kill, enslave, exploit all of us too get more power.
            • by w0mprat (1317953)

              Great dissertation. Old school idea, though, of Illuminati / Freemasonry / Mormonism. But to what end? So you have control of everything, to argue hypothetically. Then what? You've established the worldwide government, religious or not, run by elitists, who just happen to still have to drop their drawers to poop, unless they are descendent's of Cuthulu. What is the master plan of the New World Order past conquering everything? If it's the same old bullshit, then they just wasted our collective time. Or is their plan to implement the Georgia Guide Stones? What is really the master plan? I'd humbly advise the "great ones" who wish to implement the plan of the New World Order that they should pay heed to and meditate upon Puma Punku and what it says if you're open to reading between the lines. One final morsel for thought: If I were a galactic civilization, I would keep the human race safely contained on the planet like a nasty plague by whatever means necessary, including sending them back to the stone age. Just because of the way we roll...

              We might very well turn to be a self-containing disease, we've stumbled with manned spaceflight lately, now we're quite simply killing our host before we can replicate and infect others.

          • secure a high standard of living for the next 20 generations of their descendants

            Okay on a more serious reply that my last one I think that everything you said stems from this thought. I agree with your sentiment and I think people should think more about what it means to society to allow families to amass so much wealth for so many generations. I fail to see how it differs from royalty. With royalty the first king is likely to have brought prosperity to his people. And his successor may have followed in his steps. Maybe building up the infrastructure of his kingdom and make himsel

          • attacks on ...religion because those demand loyalty to something other than the state

            Stop. You're killing me here.

          • You should read the Wall Street Journal more often. Then you can learn the plans of the rich overlords.
          • by gtall (79522)

            Wow, I see you've been watching Oliver Stone movies again. Gotta stop doing that, the distortion is not very compelling after one hacks through the lies.

        • This information is tremendously interesting for non-US countries because it shows the US are going to split their development effort between distinct technologies for military (nuclear) and civilian applications, which will be a catastrophy for them and a boon for the others.

          I don't explain you why nobody will want to invest into a civilian "your Wifi in the sky" system that's just radioactive.

          I may need to explain why it is so difficult for eternal flight not to go nuclear.
          There has been a huge lot of US

      • by geekoid (135745)

        control, response, and range.

      • Maybe because you can't power an infrared camera array and laser sighting with a hot air balloon. They also tend to be a bit slow, and easy to shoot. In fact, if the military was proposing a hot air balloon surveillance platform with a multi-month endurance, I would be asking "why use lighter-than-air when you can go nuclear instead?"

      • by lorenlal (164133)

        Because lighter than air doesn't have the enjoyable experience when something goes terribly wrong.

        What's the fun of a weather balloon popping when you can have radioactive material spread over a wide civilian range when someone thinks to shoot it down?

        • Clever. If the drone stays airborne, the enemy has valuable intel. If you shoot the drone down, your enemy no longer needs the intel because you've just detonated a dirty bomb over your own people.
          • by toriver (11308)

            Not if you bring it down in a controlled fashion, then you are in possession of radioactive material you can make dirty bombs out of. (Then again, so much radioactive material is on the black market that if terrorists wanted to make a dirty bomb they would have by now.)

      • Lighter than air is slow? Not to mention you'd still need a months long power source for energy intensive computer systems.

    • by zlives (2009072)

      how about a nuke powered "mothership" that can deploy drones that use rechargeable batteries

  • by busyqth (2566075) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @06:29PM (#39592031)
    I suppose this would provide some disincentive for shooting them down too:

    Should I shoot it down and stop myself from getting attacked with an air-to-ground missile, or should I not shoot it down and stop myself from getting a lungful of plutonium dust. Hmmm... choices, choices...
    • by Khashishi (775369)

      I dunno, the invaded country might find some good use for already enriched uranium. Then again, it would be very advantageous to bring it down electronically than to shoot it down.

    • Should I shoot it down and stop myself from getting attacked with an air-to-ground missile, or should I not shoot it down and stop myself from getting a lungful of plutonium dust.

      ...or I could shoot it down, create a nuclear environmental disaster for which I blame the US and some segment of the population which I carefully moved into the area will get a lung full of plutonium dust (and who knows, if I shoot enough down and there is enough plutonium...).

      Having a nuclear powered drone circling over the head of some mad dictator who does not care for his international reputation nor for his people does not seem like a good idea and, if they do decide to do it, I really hope that t

    • It's far more useful on not-particularly-hostile territories like say, domestic surveillance.
  • by ohnocitizen (1951674) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @06:32PM (#39592075)
    The US military already has a pretty bad record when it comes to the environment (http://www.projectcensored.org/top-stories/articles/2-us-department-of-defense-is-the-worst-polluter-on-the-planet/ http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/29/AR2008062901977.html [washingtonpost.com]). What happens when one of these is shot down, or malfunctions? What if it does so over a populated area? What impact could it have on the groundwater, etc...
    • It's not one of the goals of the US military to worry about the environment, their mandate is to blow shit up and kill people. Although the US military has been using solar power to run their remote military encampments in Afghanistan. Military related research has contributed a significant amount if tech to the civilian market. If you want money to conduct R&D the easiest way to obtain the funding is to mention the research might have military applications.

  • by gewalker (57809) <Gary DOT Walker AT AstraDigital DOT com> on Thursday April 05, 2012 @06:34PM (#39592089)

    And unsurprisingly the Slashdot headline fails to note that the program work has been halted and that it was never approved. Doing a little feasibility research is entirely reasonable for the military. That is, assuming they don't waste too much money on something that has serious downsides -- yeah I know, leap of faith time.

    Crazy ideas turn out to be reasonable once in a great while -- we call they breakthroughs.

    • by causality (777677) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @07:04PM (#39592387)

      That is, assuming they don't waste too much money on something that has serious downsides

      Seems to me the very best way to avoid doing that is to restrict the military to securing one's own border (and only one's own border) against unprovoked foreign attacks. Then you could also reduce expenditures until we're only 2-3 times more powerful than the second strongest military.

      That's also why I would never make it in politics.

      • The dollar goes abroad and wants 100% back, the flag follows the dollar, and the soldiers follow the flag.

        ~ Smedly Butler

      • Seems to me the very best way to avoid doing that is to restrict the military to securing one's own border (and only one's own border) against unprovoked foreign attacks. Then you could also reduce expenditures until we're only 2-3 times more powerful than the second strongest military.

        It sounds like a good idea in general, but sometimes you do have to strike first to preempt the upcoming enemy attack with much fewer casualties compared to waiting till they strike, and sometimes you need to help your allies who were attacked before their enemy finishes them off and switches over to you (think WW2).

      • by ace37 (2302468) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @09:20PM (#39593403) Homepage

        Seems to me the very best way to avoid doing that is to restrict the military to securing one's own border (and only one's own border) against unprovoked foreign attacks. Then you could also reduce expenditures until we're only 2-3 times more powerful than the second strongest military.

        That's also why I would never make it in politics.

        Agreed in concept. Today US aircraft fly the world's most advanced air weapons systems against no threat, so it's easy to argue US military power exceeds the needs of the nation. But that factor of 2-3 times is where the question comes in for everyone. The rapid and unexpected growth of the German war machine in the 1940s makes a very strong historical example to support the argument that 2-3 times is not sufficient. The boundary conditions of what worst case scenario to base the analysis on and what contribution from allies to assume makes for solid arguments that would support a very wide range of numbers.

        The other side of the story is that the US military's R&D spurs and creates technological innovation in private industry, which adds to global wealth. Military R&D goals are different from market or academic goals, so it often will ask and fund very different research questions from academic and market channels. The research is done by firms that fully intend to make profit-producing products out of the research results, so a small percentage of the technology trickles down into major advances in commercial goods.

        It's not the best way to do it, but this is very politically safe funding for basic research. It produces real fruits too. GPS is one, and the most important is probably ARPANET, a legitimate parent of the internet. I would hazard a guess that the work and funding from DARPA accelerated the development of the modern internet by ~10 years. Earlier development of the internet had huge positive implications on the genuine wealth of our world--not just the wealth of the US, and it came directly from military spending.

        If the general category "military spending" were cut and we wanted those external benefits to not die with it, the US would need to simultaneously fund politically vulnerable organizations such as NASA and the National Labs to offset for the losses in research. They are very technically effective, but NASA's money could go on the political chopping block at any election cycle and not recover for decades--just where it is now--whereas defense funded research is politically secure.

      • That might work if the longest ranged weapon is a longbow and you're fully self sufficient in food & other resources.

  • by StikyPad (445176)

    It seems like UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles) would be the logical alternative. Terminal velocity of falling/sinking objects is lower in water than in air, which means lower impact forces and potential for rupturing a reactor, not to mention the significantly lower human population density on the ocean floor than on land. Also, they'd be harder to find and to sink than their aerial counterparts.

  • A couple of times in the article the talk about these drones crashing or falling into enemy hands. What they can't bring themselves to say (or perhaps even think about) is that because they will be used for warfare (that is what flying above enemy territory is all about) that they might be shot down. Since it is air borne they are going to want to keep the weight down, this means minimal nuclear containment -- so when it is shot down there will be radio nucleotides all over the place!

    Is it a case of hands o

  • by draconx (1643235) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @06:41PM (#39592161) Homepage

    They would ... only be limited by the ordinance they could drop on a potential foe.

    Not surprising that it's the United States which comes up with a device to literally drop their laws on unsuspecting nations.

    Oh wait, slashdot, you must have meant ordnance.

    • by causality (777677)

      They would ... only be limited by the ordinance they could drop on a potential foe.

      Not surprising that it's the United States which comes up with a device to literally drop their laws on unsuspecting nations.

      Oh wait, slashdot, you must have meant ordnance.

      If they're like us and never, ever repeal laws no matter how much of a failure they've been (c.f. war on some drugs), the bullets and bombs would be the kinder, gentler alternative in the long run. At least those do damage one time, not perpetually into the future.

  • by sunfly (1248694) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @06:44PM (#39592187)
    I have that "Odd Uncle" that swears the crash at Area 51 many years ago was an atomic aircraft in development, and the pilots were wearing anti-radiation suits.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Hmm, don't think they ever made it to Area 51, but the military did develop nuclear powered aircraft. The idea was an ultra-range bomber, and I saw what remains of the engines (using a molten-salt reactor for heat) out in Idaho National Lab. The program was scrapped because of missiles, subs, and because it's a bad idea.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_aircraft [wikipedia.org]

      Also those pilots were probably just wearing crazy looking flight suits for high altitude, like SR-71 pilots.

  • So now we even export nuclear materials directly to the Taliban for use in their dirty-bomb program? Do we really think that one UAV will not wind up in the enemy hands due to a lucky shot, mechanical failure, or acts of Nature? What are the chances? Oh about 100% in the long term if they would ask me.

    Only they didn't ask.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Why would they ask someone who won't even bother to read the simplest article? Yu're the kind of person I hope they NEVER ask.

      That are not doing this, they drew up plans, and then halted it.

  • Project Pluto (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Whatsisname (891214) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @06:50PM (#39592245) Homepage

    The United States started work in this field back in the 60s, trying to build cruise missiles that would be able to fly around continuously.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Pluto [wikipedia.org]

    • by F34nor (321515)

      One plan for it was to just circle the damn target sucking up the air and causing sonic booms.

    • Well, that's different than this. The problem with the cruise missile was that it was using the heat from the nuclear reactor to directly drive the plane. That emits radiation, and well, makes it hard to stop. The UAV concept would use it to generate electricity, then use that to drive electrical engines.

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        project pluto is so much cooler.

        this new (scuttled) plan would have been just "hey let's stick a rtg on the drone!". which is an obvious idea and much less cool.

  • by forkfail (228161) on Thursday April 05, 2012 @06:53PM (#39592281)

    ... nuclear devices flying around for months over enemy territory ...

    What could possibly go wrong? [slashdot.org]

  • Blow it up in the air.

  • Nuclear submarines have a crew that maintains the reactor. Unmanned reactors are not a good idea.

  • Just to get the small amount of material on board.

  • Didn't we just see a demonstration of a solar-powered airborne cell tower that loitered for something like 2 weeks? Hope I got the stats right, too lazy to verify my memory.

  • Nuclear reactors aren't exactly lightweight... and one of the chief goals in running an efficient air vehicle is to minimize its mass.
    • US has successfully flown a plane [wikipedia.org] with an operating nuclear reactor onboard (though they didn't get so far as to actually use it to power the engines... which, on the other hand, means that it was heavier than the real thing would have been). Soviets also had a similar project, though they've skimped on radiation shielding and it didn't go all that well as a consequence.

      So, yes, you can get it off the ground. And the thing is, once you can, "too heavy" doesn't really matter if you have a power source that c

      • by mark-t (151149)

        Well... by too heavy, I mean that you end up having to use a higher power/mass ratio.

        Obviously, with more lift you can lift anything, regardless of its mass. It's just that at some point, it's going to get so heavy that it's simply not worth the bother. I would have thought that, generally speaking, using a nuclear reactor as power for a drone would be crossing that line.

      • by tomhath (637240)

        So, yes, you can get it off the ground. And the thing is, once you can, "too heavy" doesn't really matter if you have a power source that can keep all that heaviness up.

        Good point but perhaps too subtle. The thing wouldn't need to take off on its own, just stay aloft once it's up there. Boosters or a heavy lift aircraft are easy.

        Lasers or a rail gun are interesting possibilities for weapons. Bottom line though is that this just isn't needed as long as you have a runway a few hundred miles away. More likely we'll see solar powered ultralight sensors that can stay up for a few days and longer range weapons that can be used as desired. Pretty scary to be on the receiving end

    • by mdsolar (1045926)
      My father worked on this in the 1960's. There was no real problem getting a plane to fly. The shielding for a realistic crew was a problem though. Drones don't have a crew so spot shielding for equipment might do the job. A flock of these might have a realistic chance at doing launch phase anti-ICBM work which might change strategic nuclear postures substantially. Pretty serious implications.
  • I thought that nuclear powered airships were declared illegal by the UN or something. Space, yes, but not air..

  • Like the 'war on terror' so they can fly around and watch our back yards for months on end?

    Besides, don't we have satellites that can do a better job at this point anyway?

  • Now all we need is an army of nuclear drones flying over our heads.
  • Seriously, at the current failure rate of flight-rated systems components the realistic time aloft (while allowing for peacetime failure rates) would be measured in days, or a few weeks at best. Only doubling and tripling redundancy levels will push this limit out, and this is getting less and less effective, because you will have more and more components which can (and will at some point) fail.

    A better approach is to increase the reliability of the parts, but this means spending serious money and develop

  • Lasers! Lasers! Lasers!

    A nuclear drone really should have laser cannons.

    Pew! Pew! Pew!

    (Sorry, couldn't resist)

  • For someone who has done their homework on them, are RTGs practical in any way for the amounts of power needed for flight? Assuming you've got the admittedly heavy substances, is it particularly bulky to make the generators or could they be scaled into something like this? (And obviously overlooking the fact that if one crashes you've got highly radioactive contaminants being scattered)
  • what about nuclear powered sub-marine drones. That would be bruce-lee like awesome... ./ has always had a problem with juicing 'toys that kill', too many tech people lack the savvy to see how offensive it is. More recently, ./'s problem has become more like an obsession or addiction. The military has nothing to teach us; never has, never will.

  • Not a new idea, the flying crowbar was just that. It could deliver its load and then fly around for months polluting the enemy territory with nuclear fallout.

    http://www.merkle.com/pluto/pluto.html
  • by pakar (813627)

    ... here it comes...

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