U.S. Scientists/Weapons Contractors Draw Up Plans for Nuclear Drones

American scientists have drawn up blueprints for nuclear-powered drones able to patrol remote regions of the world for months on end without refueling.

The new drones, developed by the U.S. government’s top nuclear research and development agency, Sandia National Laboratories, and defense contractor Northrop Grumman, were designed to increase flying time “from days to months” while making operating equipment more powerful.

“It’s a pretty terrifying prospect,” said Chris Coles of Drone Wars UK, which campaigns against the increasing use of drones for both military and civilian purposes. “Drones are much less safe than other aircraft and tend to crash a lot. There is a major push by this industry to increase the use of drones and both the public and government are struggling to keep up with the implications.”

Research into what is termed “ultra-persistence technologies” is set out to solve three problems common with drones:

Insufficient “hang time” over a potential target.

Lack of power for running sophisticated surveillance and weapons systems.

Lack of communications capacity.

The Sandia-Northrop Grumman team looked into different power systems for large and medium-sized drones before choosing a nuclear solution. Northrop Grumman patented a drone equipped with a helium-cooled nuclear reactor back in 1986, and previously worked on nuclear projects with the US air force research laboratory.

Nuclear drones are able to conduct far more surveillance per mission compared to other technologies, and reduces the costs of support systems by eliminating the need for forward bases and fuel supplies in remote and possibly hostile areas.

The project has been put on hold due to worries that public opinion will not accept the notion of such hazardous technology, with the inherent potential of a crash turning a drone into a flying dirty bomb or of the nuclear propulsion system falling into the hands of terrorists.

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