1 March 2012

Supersonic UAV with sub-$100k price tag mooted

by Will Parker

Powered by a novel, super-efficient jet engine, an unmanned aircraft that will fly at Mach 1.4 is nearing commercialization, say the University of Colorado Boulder designers behind the ultra-cheap drone. The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which is currently in a prototype state, is expected to fly farther and faster - using less fuel - than anything remotely similar to date. The new UAV has so far attracted interest from the U.S. Army, Navy, DARPA and NASA.

CU-Boulder aerospace engineer Ryan Starkey (left of pic) says the fuel efficiency of the engine that powers the 50-kilogram UAV is already double that of similar-scale engines and he hopes to double that efficiency again through further engineering. He adds that the engine's thrust capacity makes the aircraft capable of reaching Mach 1.4, easily breaking the world record for speed in its weight class. The aircraft's compact airframe is about 5 feet wide and 6 feet long, with a projected cost of between US$50,000 and $100,000.

The technology - reported in Aviation Week - is now transitioning into a business venture through Starkey's new private venture, Starkey Aerospace Corp. The company was incubated by eSpace, a CU-affiliated non-profit organization that supports entrepreneurial space companies.

The researchers are now creating a fully integrated and functioning engineering test unit of the UAV, which will be followed by a critical design review. The building of the aircraft and process of applying for FAA approval to test it in the air will carry into next year.

Starkey believes the UAV could be used for everything from penetrating and analyzing storms to military reconnaissance missions - both expeditions that can require the long-distance, high-speed travel - without placing human pilots in danger. The UAV also could be used for testing low-sonic-boom supersonic transport aircraft technology.

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Source: University of Colorado Boulder