They resemble miniature Reaper drones, but the nimbler Sandstorm’s mission will veer sharply from its weapons-laden cousin as the Department of Energy explores using unmanned aircraft to respond to nuclear emergencies.
Instead of laser-guided missiles and bombs under its wings, the Sandstorm payload consists of radiation detection sensors and optical imagery gear. Named for designer Justin Sands of Henderson-based Unmanned Systems Inc., these sleek machines are more maneuverable, but like Reapers they have retractable nose gear and pneumatic brakes.
The National Nuclear Security Administration wants Sandstorms to augment its fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Nuclear emergency responders are being trained to fly the drones and assess radioactive plumes under such scenarios as what occurred in the earthquake-triggered reactor meltdowns during the 2011 disaster at Fukushima, Japan.
The logic is akin to not risking pilot lives for reconnaissance missions in a war zone.
“We know there are going to be areas where we don’t want to put our aircraft or our personnel or equipment in harm’s way,” said Karen McCall, Unmanned Aerial Systems program manager for National Security Technologies, prime contractor for Department of Energy’s Nevada Field Office.
“So by having unmanned platforms available we would actually go out and determine a situation before we send in our first responders.”
Sandstorms have a 15-foot wingspan — compared with 66 feet for a Reaper — and can zip through the sky at clips of 40 mph to 110 mph, depending on whether they are powered by lithium-polymer batteries, gasoline or jet fuel for turboprops. – READ MORE