CIA Declassifies Plans for a 'Nuclear Bird Drone'

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3 years ago

During the Cold War, the CIA considered building a bird-sized drone designed to spy on the communist bloc. The drone would carry 'black box' spy packages into Russia and China, as well as take secret photographs — all while hiding in plain sight disguised as a bird. The project envisioned a fleet of 12 bird-shaped drones, powered by nuclear energy, that could stay aloft for up to a month. The drone, which was supposed to act as a robotic spy plane and courier for secret payloads, was never completed. Aquiline was a small drone, meant to be kept as close to bird-like size as possible — five feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and a takeoff weight of 83 pounds — under the constraints of the technology of the time. A silent 3.5-horsepower, four-cycle engine would give the drone a speed of 47 to 80 knots and an endurance of 50 hours and 1,200 miles. Aquiline's maximum altitude was estimated at 20,000 feet.

Nuclear power promised to give Aquiline even greater range. The CIA proposed to install a radioisotope propulsion system on the flying drone, one that would convert waste heat from decaying isotopes (like plutonium) into electricity. Such an engine, developed primarily for deep space probes, would boost the drone's endurance to an astonishing 30 days or 36,000 miles.

Aquiline was designed to carry both photographic and intelligence payloads. It could take overhead photographs of sensitive sites while flying much lower than the U-2 spy plane, and would scoop up electronic signals of radios, radar, and other devices for later analysis. Unlike manned planes, Aquiline could fly much closer to its targets, producing high resolution photographs and recording stronger electromagnetic signals. The drone could also secretly drop off payloads of specially developed sensors near sites the CIA wanted to closely monitor.

Radars and human sentries at sensitive sites would mistake Aquiline for a bird and pay little attention to it.

The drone was to have been designed by McDonnell Douglas — and developed Area 51.

And since data storage at the time was limited, the drone would instead beam all of its data to a nearby reconnaissance plane.

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