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Will Nuclear-Powered Drones Enter Our Skies?

Written by on Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Aircraft suffer from a number of limitations that restrict the amount of time they can be in the air. The most common issue is fuel, though the Air Force has developed extremely efficient engines and aerial refueling processes to overcome this drawback. The other factor is the actual pilot. No matter how skilled a pilot is, everyone will need to stop and sleep at some point.

And yet, the Air Force is thinking about creating aircraft that can literally spend months in the air nonstop. How is this possible? They plan to achieve this by fusing two relatively new pieces of technology, UAV piloting and nuclear power, into a single aircraft.

Nuclear propulsion systems will be able to create enormous amounts of energy over a very long period of time, all while adding comparatively little weight to the aircraft. As odd as the idea might sound, it’s actually been around for several decades; Northrop Gunmann applied for a patent for a drone with a helium-cooled reactor back in 1986.

By the very nature of this type of long-term aircraft, drones would benefit the most buy generic antibiotics from nuclear power. While conventional aircraft can still be piloted in shifts, they of course require pilots to be on board, which makes month-long missions as intensive as some space flight missions. Drone pilots, however, can simply hand over shifts without any real interruption in the aircraft’s flight. A team of pilots working in shifts could pilot a single drone for months on end without any real difficulty.

Still, nuclear-powered drones pose a tremendous risk. Drones have some of the highest accident rates among aircraft, which effectively turns nuclear drones into dirty bombs. If they crashed, they would not have the same sort of negative effect as bomb, but they could still leak radiation into the crash site.

Another rather troubling concern is the fact that these aircraft could be shot down by enemies and the nuclear technology could fall into the hands of US enemies or terrorists. The benefits of nuclear drones are certainly remarkable, but the potential dangers that the Air Force would risk by putting these drones into the sky may be too great.

If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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