Sandia National Laboratories cooks up some of the craziest new technologies you'll ever see — and some you'll never see. That's the fate of a secret method for driving drones with nuclear power, abandoned by its creators.
The tech was uncovered in a document acquired by the Federation of American Scientists, which outlines a study Sandia conducted. The results? They've got a new means of powering military drones with huge benefits:
As a result of this effort, UAVs were to be able to provide far more surveillance time and intelligence information per mission 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.
Essentially, the tech allowed for "ultra-persistent" drone flight that didn't require traditional fuels. As the FAS points out, the study doesn't ever say "nuclear", but all of the giveaways are there: "decommissioning and disposal" wouldn't be issues otherwise.
So what happened? "It was disappointing to all that the political realities would not allow use of the results," Sandia laments. The lab gave up on nuclear drones due to political pressures, perceived or otherwise. "No near-term benefit to industry or the taxpayer will be encountered as a result of these studies."
Drones crash. Compared to conventional aeroplanes, they crash a lot. Rough weather, communications errors, software glitches — sometimes we don't even know what brings down a drone. But they go down, and because there's no human inside, it's never considered much of a loss. They're (relatively) cheap! They're (relatively) disposable! But with nuclear fuel inside, they'd be categorically dangerous. Even across bombed out Afghanistan, a Predator crash with nuclear consequences would be a diplomatic crisis. Suddenly, you don't just have debris — you have a contamination zone. That wouldn't go over well in downtown Islamabad.
And then there's the inexorable reality of drones flying above the US — above our homes. Although the propulsion tech Sandia seemed so keen on was ostensibly meant for military craft, the Homeland Security fantasy of "ultra-persistent" can't be ignored. Domestic spies would drool and throb over this ever-watching eye as much as the Air Force or CIA.
Whatever "political conditions" grounded Sandia's shadowy drones likely reflected the obvious: we don't need unmanned nukes orbiting the world, whether over our own heads or the Taliban's. But political conditions have a tendency of changing unannounced — and contrary to reason. And if weapon wonks are so in love with this technology now, let's not pretend they're going to give up forever just because it's unpopular today. [FAS]