Monster Machines: UAVs Know Who Launched The Nuke

During the Cold War, it wasn't hard to determine who could have been behind an airborne nuclear strike — just check behind the Iron Curtain. But in the modern era of nuclear proliferation, figuring out who set off a bomb would be more akin to crime scene investigation.

Say a nuclear missile is launched somewhere in the world. To learn its origins, authorities would first need to collect airborne fallout samples from multiple altitudes. But doing so would also expose pilots to dangerous amounts of radiation. That's why Sandia National Labs has developed a way to make a drone do it — a new UAV-mounted radioactive fallout collection system can gather up the isotopes without a risk to any human pilots.

Dubbed the Harvester, this airborne particulate collection system is comprised of three 2.7m, 300kg sampling pods, and some additional analysis hardware, mounted to the underside of an MQ-9 Reaper. Two pods do the active sampling, while the third hones in on the fallout's source by tracking the gamma radiation trail left behind. And while strapping these pods to the belly of a $US36 million drone may seem an expensive option, it is still less expensive and more versatile than permanently modifying manned aircraft to carry it.

It works by pushing air through each duct-like pod at 320km/h (the Reaper's cruising speed). Radioactive material in that air gets stuck in a fine fibre mesh filter, and it's analysed in real-time by the on-board radiation sensor. This sensor is quick, but not completely accurate. So once the UAV is back on the ground, researchers can remove the filter for further analysis. During a test run last September above Grand Forks Air Force Base, in Grand Forks, ND, the Harvester system successfully collected and identified natural lead and bismuth isotopes generated from the decay of radon in the atmosphere.

"There's a high likelihood the Air Force will make Harvester operational in 2014 to augment its current manned aircraft collection capability," said Sandia project lead Joe Sanders, in a press release. "For maximum responsiveness, we continually engaged with the Air Force to address its technological and operational needs throughout the project."

Let's just hope no one drops a Little Boy before next year — or, well, ever again.

[Sandia National Labs - Defense Talk]

Picture: Sandia Natl Labs


Comments

    If any country is capable of dropping a nuclear bomb it's America....in fact, they already did.
    People will argue that dropping bombs on 2 countries in Japan helped stop WW2, while others have testified that Japan would've have surrendered anyway.

    I think the bomb was dropped to show the world that America had the largest penis at the time.
    A simple and basic example of he who has "The Biggest Stick" makes the rules.

    Taking into account the fact that there isn't one single moment in U.S. history where it WASN'T involved in some kind of war, I would say the country most likely to start WW3 would be America.....NOT Russia.

    I'm guessing this article is ANOTHER American Gizmodo article, judging by the slight pro-America/anti-Russian propaganda icing.

    Last edited 17/01/13 1:44 am

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