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Sandia Lab's Nuclear-Powered UAV Project Leaked?

flateric

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while reading of Mr. Nozette unfortunate ending...


Secret Drone Technology Barred by “Political Conditions”
March 22nd, 2012 by Steven Aftergood


A certain technology that could extend the mission duration and capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was favorably assessed last year by scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation. But they concluded regretfully that “current political conditions will not allow use of the results.”


The assessment was carried out to explore the feasibility of next generation UAVs. The objective was “to increase UAV sortie duration from days to months while increasing available electrical power at least two-fold,” according to a June 2011 Sandia project summary.


And that objective could have been achieved by means of the unidentified technology, which “would have provided system performance unparalleled by other existing technologies,” the project summary said.


“As a result of this effort, UAVs were to be able to provide far more surveillance time and intelligence information 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.”


But it was all for nought.


“Unfortunately, none of the results will be used in the near-term or mid-term future,” the project summary stated. “It was disappointing to all that the political realities would not allow use of the results.”


Not only that, but “none of the results can be shared openly with the public due to national security constraints.”


On close reading, it seems clear that the Sandia-Northrop project contemplated the use of nuclear technology for onboard power and propulsion.


The project summary, which refers to “propulsion and power technologies that [go] well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies,” does not actually use the word “nuclear.” But with unmistakable references to “safeguards,” “decommissioning and disposal,” and those unfavorable “political conditions,” there is little doubt about the topic under discussion.


Furthermore, the project’s lead investigator at Sandia, the aptly named Dr. Steven B. Dron, is a specialist in nuclear propulsion, among other things. He co-chaired a session at the 2008 Symposium on Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion at the University of New Mexico.


Interestingly, opposition to flying nuclear power sources in this case was internalized without needing to be expressed, and the authors were self-deterred from pursuing their own proposals. “The results will not be applied/implemented,” they stated flatly.


Meanwhile, integration of (conventional) unmanned aircraft systems into the National Airspace System will proceed, as mandated by Congress. On March 6, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a request for public comments on the pending designation of six UAS test sites around the country.


Last month, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and other public interest organizations petitioned the FAA “to conduct a rulemaking to address the threat to privacy and civil liberties that will result from the deployment of aerial drones within the United States.”

http://www.fas.org/blog/secrecy/2012/03/sandia_drone.html
http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/sand-uav.pdf
 

sferrin

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It'd probably work for cruise missiles too. ;)
 

sferrin

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Orionblamblam said:
I wonder if maybe there was some success with hafnium isomers after all.
"Interestingly, opposition to flying nuclear power sources in this case was internalized without needing to be expressed, and the authors were self-deterred from pursuing their own proposals."

That sounded. . .ominous. Almost as if the author was pleased that "they saw the error of their ways without anybody needing to point it out for them".
 

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sferrin said:
That sounded. . .ominous. Almost as if the author was pleased that "they saw the error of their ways without anybody needing to point it out for them".
Couple ways to take it:
1) "Holy crap, what we've come up with would work, but it'd be an environmental nightmare."
2) "Holy crap, what we've come up with would work, but it would require flying full-up fission reactors, and that just ain't gonna happen. Let's waste no further effort on this."
3) "Holy crap, what we've come up with wouldn't work worth a damn, but we'd better cover our butts with the higher-ups. Let's lie!"
4) "Holy crap, what we've come up with wouldn't work worth a damn, but if we drop vague hints, we can cause our enemies to waste time and effort trying to figure it out. Let's lie!"
5) "I'm bored. We've done nothing, but if we drop hints of Great Advancements, we'll make the UFO freaks go bugnuts. Let's lie!"
 

quellish

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Stirling_Radioisotope_Generator
 
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sublight

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So is the political problem the mess that the Plutonium238 would make when one crashed/shot down, or that we would have to buy the Plutonium from Russia since we don't make it any more?
 

quellish

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sublight said:
So is the political problem the mess that the Plutonium238 would make when one crashed/shot down, or that we would have to buy the Plutonium from Russia since we don't make it any more?
There is plenty of 238, and it's not like it's going away soon.
 

Mat Parry

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Surely there are applications other than UAV's, ones which are less prone to crashing and either....
  • releasing a radiological nightmare (apologies, gone a bit Annie Jacobson with my language there ::) )
  • unintended technology transfers (need to bomb the crash site back to the stone age.... yadda yadda yadda)
Hafnium isomers was my first thought too.
 

Nik

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IMHO, the main problem is cumulo-granite...
 

Mat Parry

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I was speculating that there must be applications for such a groundbreaking power source that doesn't involve flying (or even worse crashing).

Maybe the political considerations are the risk of crop dusting the earth with a radioactive exhaust. I'd prefer to believe however that Sandia & Northrop had thought about that at the project kick off meeting...
 

LowObservable

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Quellish, do you think you could get acceptable power/weight out of that system?

What I had heard (before this) was that the UAV and nuclear power went together because (1) nobody wants to fly for a week, much less a month and (2) long-term shielding of the crew drove the weight. If you recall the original hafnium-isomer Global Hawk idea, too, the idea was to burn JP for take-off, climb, descent and landing.

People have been quite serious about this, but its political chances are zero.
 
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sublight

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quellish said:
sublight said:
So is the political problem the mess that the Plutonium238 would make when one crashed/shot down, or that we would have to buy the Plutonium from Russia since we don't make it any more?
There is plenty of 238, and it's not like it's going away soon.
Available to whom? The last seven or eight times NASA needed it, they had to buy it from Russia.
 

quellish

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LowObservable said:
Quellish, do you think you could get acceptable power/weight out of that system?

What I had heard (before this) was that the UAV and nuclear power went together because (1) nobody wants to fly for a week, much less a month and (2) long-term shielding of the crew drove the weight. If you recall the original hafnium-isomer Global Hawk idea, too, the idea was to burn JP for take-off, climb, descent and landing.

People have been quite serious about this, but its political chances are zero.
According to the report, they looked at:
"eight heat sources technologies, three power conversions, two dual cycle propulsion system configurations, and a single electrical power generation scheme". I would guess that there may be a separate cycle for takeoff and landing, that would make a lot of sense.

Supposedly an ASRG has/can have the power to weight to enable use for this type of application. It's been looked at for a Titan mission UAV:
http://www.lpi.usra.edu/opag/Oct2011/presentations/1_AVIATR_Barnes.pdf
From other open source information on ASRGs, it seems that some very good power to weight is possible.
And hey, if you leave out the shielding....

RTGs in general are used more than you would think for terrestrial applications. Sometimes they get disguised as rocks ;)
 

quellish

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sublight said:
quellish said:
sublight said:
So is the political problem the mess that the Plutonium238 would make when one crashed/shot down, or that we would have to buy the Plutonium from Russia since we don't make it any more?
There is plenty of 238, and it's not like it's going away soon.
Available to whom? The last seven or eight times NASA needed it, they had to buy it from Russia.
Well, for non national security use:

http://nuclear.inl.gov/spacenuclear/docs/final72005faqs.pdf
http://www.nukewatch.org/facts/nwd/nwnmpu238082905.pdf

Otherwise, I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you.
You can however draw your own conclusions from documents such as this:
http://www.ccnr.org/plute_inventory_99.html
http://nnsa.energy.gov/ourmission/managingthestockpile/plutoniumpits
http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_10/PlutoniumStockpile
http://fissilematerials.org/library/gfmr11.pdf
 

Mat Parry

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Quellish quite correctly indicated ASRG has been looked at for a Titan mission UAV.
If an ASRG was involved in one or more of the options considered in the Sandia study then we can assume the authors of the Sandia report do not see space exploration as being of benefit to the taxpayer or they are not optimistic about the Titan mission happening anytime soon.....No near-term benefit to industry or the taxpayer will be encountered as a result of these studies." :mad:

Specifically Regarding the Titan mission UAV, is the application of an ARSG more viable on Titan than on Earth?


"With 3.25 times more air and 7 times less gravity than Earth, along with a workable thermal environment, heavier-than-air flight makes more sense on Titan than anywhere else in the solar system".
http://www.lpi.usra.edu/opag/Oct2011/presentations/1_AVIATR_Barnes.pdf


Edited highlights from the Sandia report below

Description:
The purpose/objective of the project was to further ultra-persistence technologies for unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). This effort was broken into four task areas:

Task 1 - UP3S Systems Engineering Analyses (UP3S = ultra-persistent propulsion and power system)
Task 2 - UP3S Project Planning
Task 3 - Briefing Support
Task 4 - Interim and Final Reports.

Under task 1, Sandia conducted computer-based engineering and literature-based process analyses to meet the technical and programmatic requirements. Sandia assisted NGIS UMS to baseline at least one future UAV configuration with new energy and power systems to meet emerging U.S. military operational needs. Sandia conducted analyses at component and system-levels that emerged during the project. No physical asset testing or demonstrations was performed during this effort.

Under task 2, Sandia and NGIS UMS developed technology development requirements, projected costs, schedule, manpower, facilities, equipment, associated resources, key experiments, demonstrations, tests, and decisions, operational system modifications versus new system acquisition

Accomplishments
The effort concentrated on propulsion and power technologies that went well beyond existing hydrocarbon technologies. It contrasted and compared eight heat sources technologies, three power conversion, two dual cycle propulsion system configurations, and a single electrical power generation scheme. Overall performance, specific power parameters, technical complexities, security, safety, and other operational features were successfully investigated. Large and medium sized UAV systems were envisioned and operational flight profiles were developed for each concept.

Benefits to the Department of Energy:
None of the results are currently in use by DOE and it is doubtful that they will be used in the near-term or mid-term future. Currently, none of the results can be shared openly with the public due to national security constraints.

Economic Impact:

No near-term benefit to industry or the taxpayer will be encountered as a result of these studies.
 

Byeman

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sublight said:
quellish said:
sublight said:
So is the political problem the mess that the Plutonium238 would make when one crashed/shot down, or that we would have to buy the Plutonium from Russia since we don't make it any more?
There is plenty of 238, and it's not like it's going away soon.
Available to whom? The last seven or eight times NASA needed it, they had to buy it from Russia.
Only two times.
 

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sublight said:
quellish said:
sublight said:
So is the political problem the mess that the Plutonium238 would make when one crashed/shot down, or that we would have to buy the Plutonium from Russia since we don't make it any more?
There is plenty of 238, and it's not like it's going away soon.
Available to whom? The last seven or eight times NASA needed it, they had to buy it from Russia.
NASA has very little Pu-238 left.

Pu-238 is manufactured from Neptunium. The DoE has plenty of Neptunium in storage. The issue is restarting production to convert the Neptunium into Pu-238.
 

blackstar

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quellish said:
Supposedly an ASRG has/can have the power to weight to enable use for this type of application. It's been looked at for a Titan mission UAV:
Titan has lower gravity than Earth and a thicker atmosphere.
 

quellish

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http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20080003866_2008003415.pdf

Note that obviously this is focused on space applications (for planetary missions), and only covers fairly small generators.

blackstar said:
Titan has lower gravity than Earth and a thicker atmosphere.
Atmosphere? Pfft. That place is dead after 10PM. Salt Lake City has more atmosphere!
 

quellish

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Didn't find this mentioned elsewhere on the forum, but TEAL RAIN looked at several different nuclear propulsion systems (RTG and "other") back in the early 80s. IIRC Livermore was part of this effort.
 

Mat Parry

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From the Sandia report,

The stated goal of an ultra-persistent propulsion and power system (UP3S) was "for potential incorporation into next generation UAV systems. The team members tried to determine which energy storage and power generation concepts could most effectively push UAV propulsion and electrical power capabilities to increase UAV sortie duration from days to months while increasing available electrical power at least two-fold". The report also states NGIS UMS and SNL felt that the technical goals for the project were accomplished

Under task 1 (computer-based engineering and literature-based analyses) the Sandia report talks of "Propulsion and power system scalability"
Presumably this refers to the feasibility of applying something like RTG's, ASRG's etc of sufficient power (and viable size) to provide propulsion for months and double electrical power.

The report also talks of some accomplishments of Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (#1714), which include
  • Baselineing at least one future UAV configuration with the proposed new energy and power systems
  • Large and medium sized UAV systems were envisioned
Soooo, as Large UAV's were envisioned......

1.
Taking a current Large UAV (RQ-4B Block 40) using current hydrocarbon technology
2. Only considering the electrical power output (e.g. on RQ-4B Block 40, a 25kVA generator). Can we hypothesise that electrical power generation for an envisioned Large UAV's using the proposed new energy and power systems would be double that of RQ-4B?

50 kVA = 40 kW

Using this logic (which admittedly is shaky) and considering the ASRG hypothesis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Stirling_Radioisotope_Generator
ASRG example discussed above weighs 20Kg, uses 0.8 kg plutonium-238 and produces 140 W. Using a linear scaling (this is probably where I've completely missunderstood the principles), I'm not surprised flying 230 kg of plutonium-238 on a UAV is considered to be a "politically reality that would not allow use of results"


One last final comment (which again probably only comes down to definitions), regarding the eight heat source technologies studied, to me plutonium bricks would be one heat source... what are the other 7?
 
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Catalytic said:
From the Sandia report,

The stated goal of an ultra-persistent propulsion and power system (UP3S) was "for potential incorporation into next generation UAV systems. The team members tried to determine which energy storage and power generation concepts could most effectively push UAV propulsion and electrical power capabilities to increase UAV sortie duration from days to months while increasing available electrical power at least two-fold". The report also states NGIS UMS and SNL felt that the technical goals for the project were accomplished

Under task 1 (computer-based engineering and literature-based analyses) the Sandia report talks of "Propulsion and power system scalability"
Presumably this refers to the feasibility of applying something like RTG's, ASRG's etc of sufficient power (and viable size) to provide propulsion for months and double electrical power.

The report also talks of some accomplishments of Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (#1714), which include
  • Baselineing at least one future UAV configuration with the proposed new energy and power systems
  • Large and medium sized UAV systems were envisioned
Soooo, as Large UAV's were envisioned......

1.
Taking a current Large UAV (RQ-4B Block 40) using current hydrocarbon technology
2. Only considering the electrical power output (e.g. on RQ-4B Block 40, a 25kVA generator). Can we hypothesise that electrical power generation for an envisioned Large UAV's using the proposed new energy and power systems would be double that of RQ-4B?

50 kVA = 40 kW

Using this logic (which admittedly is shaky) and considering the ASRG hypothesis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Stirling_Radioisotope_Generator
ASRG example discussed above weighs 20Kg, uses 0.8 kg plutonium-238 and produces 140 W. Using a linear scaling (this is probably where I've completely missunderstood the principles), I'm not surprised flying 230 kg of plutonium-238 on a UAV is considered to be a "politically reality that would not allow use of results"


One last final comment (which again probably only comes down to definitions), regarding the eight heat source technologies studied, to me plutonium bricks would be one heat source... what are the other 7?
But it could also be that they made some really fantastic gains in sterling engine efficiencies. Maybe in the 200 watts per kilogram range?
 

quellish

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Catalytic said:
One last final comment (which again probably only comes down to definitions), regarding the eight heat source technologies studied, to me plutonium bricks would be one heat source... what are the other 7?
That is the key question. Pu 238 may not cut it for this kind of application. A more energetic source can put out a LOT more heat per g than Pu 238.

Of course, if you were flying a NPT monitoring mission over country X using this thing, well, you wouldn't want ANY of these things ending "lost". Some of the heat sources with really good power density also make really good initiators for implosion bombs.

sublight said:
But it could also be that they made some really fantastic gains in sterling engine efficiencies. Maybe in the 200 watts per kilogram range?
Not really. The SunPower stirling engines are right up against the limits of practical, the limits of theoretical aren't that far beyond that from what I understand. SunPower has a unique approach to designing their engines that gets them an efficiency advantage.
http://discovermagazine.com/2003/aug/featfire/?searchterm=idealab

The NASA paper covers some of this.
 

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Economically it doesn't make sense. Radioisotopes costs millions per kg and power to weight ratio usually sucks unless if you want to go for the REALLY radioactive stuff that then needs additional heavy shielding. The added price will never justify the added military value and there's only enough of the material anyway for maybe four or five rather smallish UAVs. But hey, it's the military, since when did economics matter?
 

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quellish said:
Of course, if you were flying a NPT monitoring mission over country X using this thing, well, you wouldn't want ANY of these things ending "lost". Some of the heat sources with really good power density also make really good initiators for implosion bombs.
Doesn't even have to be a good initiator for a bomb. Anything radioactive can be used in a dirty bomb. Would we really want to hand the Iranians some radioactive material that they might return to us in a bomb detonated in downtown NYC?
 

quellish

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Simon666 said:
Economically it doesn't make sense. Radioisotopes costs millions per kg and power to weight ratio usually sucks unless if you want to go for the REALLY radioactive stuff that then needs additional heavy shielding.
The added price will never justify the added military value and there's only enough of the material anyway for maybe four or five rather smallish UAVs. But hey, it's the military, since when did economics matter?
Some of the best heat sources are radioisotopes that are very energetic, and as such have a short half life. These are also good neutron sources, and are the same materials used in the initiators of many atomic devices. A short half life means a short shelf life. It is reasonable to conclude that for these materials, there is an existing production capacity available to maintain the current atomic device stockpile. This production capacity may be able to meet the needs of the heat sources that were part of the Sandia study.

The power to weight ratio for the heat source can be very good, depending on the heat source. If you factor in the other potential weight savings for an application like this, it can be very a very attractive solution.
 

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Some of the best heat sources are radioisotopes that are very energetic, and as such have a short half life. These are also good neutron sources, and are the same materials used in the initiators of many atomic devices.
The short half lives also means short shelf life and great expense and limited production. Being very energetic also means cost of processing and shielding is also more problematic. For atomic devices, you need very little of this stuff, not remotely near the quantity you'd need to power anything. For very high power to weight ratio you also have to consider the power is continuous so your cooling better be as well in any and all circumstances.
 

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Very interesting, thanks. I had seen a study of various alternative isotopes for space missions. The excerpt of the one you posted is quite interesting. Especially table 5c, which already eliminates a lot of the isotopes of previous tables (link to full study to see actual selection criteria?). Availability still seems quite little and cost per watt of course needs to be divided by expected efficiency (thermal to work efficiency of 25% = *4) and adjusted for inflation. Cost per kW is hence immense.

<edit>Po 210 REALLY surprises me in both the cost and availability department. Considering its very short half life, I had expected a lot worse. Wikipedia tells me Russia only produces 85 grams per year and the way it is produced also leads me to suspect price is higher than in the table.</edit>
 

quellish

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Simon666 said:
Very interesting, thanks. I had seen a study of various alternative isotopes for space missions. The excerpt of the one you posted is quite interesting. Especially table 5c, which already eliminates a lot of the isotopes of previous tables (link to full study to see actual selection criteria?). Availability still seems quite little and cost per watt of course needs to be divided by expected efficiency (thermal to work efficiency of 25% = *4) and adjusted for inflation. Cost per kW is hence immense.
The efficiency for a modern Stirling engine is pretty good. For this particular application, the overall system efficiency should be very good. Cost per kW may not be as high as you would think, and there are ways to recover what would otherwise be waste heat for this application. Most of the public studies on radioisotope thermal power focus on very small systems in terms of both mass and power output, with different solutions the scaling laws are different. Also keep in mind that HALSOL measured its power output in the low kW range, and it was carrying solar panels, batteries, etc. An aircraft powered by a RT system that delivers both mechanical output and electrical power would have some advantages.

Simon666 said:
<edit>Po 210 REALLY surprises me in both the cost and availability department. Considering its very short half life, I had expected a lot worse. Wikipedia tells me Russia only produces 85 grams per year and the way it is produced also leads me to suspect price is higher than in the table.</edit>
There are apparently multiple ways to produce it, some not so well known. It possible that someone was also pushing this study as a justification for maintaining or expanding the production capabilities for some of the heat sources.
 

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The study raises what should/could be considered HUGE questions if they are not just attempts justify or maintain or expand the production capabilities for some of the heat sources as Quellish states.
 

Mat Parry

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In the light of recent events ;) I wonder if the political considerations that (apparently) killed this work are being reconsidered.
 

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I wouldn't be surprised, though in the short term any work may not get far due to the Democrats retaking the House of Representatives.
 
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