China has put $3.3 billion into making new highly compact nuclear reactors which would also use for nuclear powered drones.
The potential impact of nuclear-powered drones can be seen by comparing them with existing aircraft such as the MQ-9 Reaper, which is used extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan in operations against insurgents. The Reaper presently carries nearly two tonnes of fuel in addition a similar weight of munitions and other equipment and can stay airborne for around 42 hours, or just 14 hours when fully loaded with munitions.
Above – An air-to-air view of the Convair NB-36H Peacemaker experimental aircraft (s/n 51-5712) and a Boeing B-50 Superfortress chase plane during research and development taking place at the Convair plant at Forth Worth, Texas (USA). The NB-36H was originally a B-36H-20-CF damaged at Carswell Air Force Base, also at Forth Worth, by a tornado on 1 September 1952. This plane was called the Nuclear Test Aircraft (NTA) and was redesignated XB-36H, then NB-36H, and was modified to carry a three megawatt, air-cooled nuclear reactor in its bomb bay. The reactor, named the Aircraft Shield Test Reactor (ASTR), was operational but did not power the plane. The NTA completed 47 test flights and 215 hours of flight time (during 89 of which the reactor was operated) between July 1955 and March 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. This was the only known airborne reactor experiment by the USA with an operational nuclear reactor on board. The NB-36H was scrapped at Fort Worth in September 1958 when the Nuclear Aircraft Program was abandoned.
Using nuclear power would enable the Reaper not only to remain airborne for far longer, but to carry more missiles or surveillance equipment, and to dispense with the need for ground crews based in remote and dangerous areas.
An unclassified study indicated that the nuclear powered drone could be built and would provide great performance. The only reason for not building it was because of the political problems it would cause.
China has announced they are spending $3.3 billion on two prototype molten salt nuclear reactors. They are building them in Mongolia. If the prototypes are successful then they would also use them for more compact and powerful reactors for faster navy ships and for nuclear powered drones.
The Soviet program of nuclear aircraft development resulted in the experimental Tupolev Tu-119, or the Tu-95LAL which was derived from the Tupolev Tu-95 bomber. It had 4 conventional turboprop engines and an onboard nuclear reactor. The Tu-119 completed 34 research flights, most of which were made with the reactor shut down. The main purpose of the flight phase was examining the effectiveness of the radiation shielding, which was one of the main concerns for the engineers. Massive protection so reduced radiation levels that development could continue, but, as in the US, it ceased.
NASA received a proposal for a nuclear powered drone for a mission to the planet Titan. Titan has an atmosphere where a nuclear powered quad copter could fly.
There are designs for solar powered long duration drones. However, nuclear powered drones could carry heavy payloads and could fly at high speed.
A multi-year duration drone would be like a low flying satellite. Satellites need telescopes and advance optics to image 400 miles away even if they are in low earth orbit. Satellites in high orbits need to image 24000 miles away.