Monday, July 23, 2012

Super-Silent Owl Drone Will Spy on You Without You Ever Noticing

For spy tools, drones are pretty easy to spot. And hear, because they’re as loud as a gut-busting rock concert. But now the intelligence community’s research division, Iarpa, plans to start designing a silent drone inspired by quiet, creeping, flying owls.

Iarpa has reportedly awarded a $4.8 million contract to Connecticut firm D-Star Engineering to develop the ultra-quiet drone, Aviation Week reports. It’s the next step in developing a workable drone as part of the agency’s Great Horned Owl Program, which the agency hopes will let the military collect intelligence “without anyone knowing you are there,” (.pdf) according to an agency briefing.

Sound, after all, is the number one signature “that gives away the location of low-altitude UAVs and gives away their presence.” Which sort of defeats the point of having a secret surveillance eye in the sky. In some cases, you might want people to know you’re watching. At other times, you want to sneak up quietly.

But it’s hard to do without sacrificing payload. The added weight of sensors, and the ability to operate for longer periods, comes with trading out stealthiness. Drones powered by batteries: They’re quiet, but can’t stay in the air for long. Then there’s the added noise caused by airflow generated from propellers, and noise from gasoline or diesel engines (not counting batteries), with their moving pistons, turbofan and gears.

Iarpa wants to keep these efficent and relatively noisy engines for normal flight. But when the drone needs to be stealthy, its operator would switch to battery power, like a hybrid car.

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