They hover, spy, take photographs, fire missiles. But there's just one major problem with drones – they're too damn loud. Now Iarpa, the intelligence community's blue-sky research division, wants to hush them up. And it's turning to nature's own stealth flyer for inspiration.
In a recent announcement, the agency outlines its new Great Horned Owl Program, which aims to develop technologies and systems for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as noiseless as their namesake. They're not the first to look to the owl for wisdom. NASA has also been investigating owls' silent flight for potential applications in the development of quiet aircraft (apparently it's all in the feathers.)
Right now, the only drones that stay under the decibel limit are small, battery-run systems that don't have enough power to last through long operations. Iarpa wants a better, longer-lasting aircraft that will help with "the smart collection of actionable intelligence."
Because let's face it – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drones are only great at what they do if they don't get caught doing it. Iarpa is quite worried that "the acoustic signature of the UAV alerts the adversary to the UAV's presence and can interfere with its mission."
How to reduce that signature? As Aviation Week notes, Iarpa is imaging some kind of electrically powered hybrid vehicle, with ducted propellers systems to dampen mechanical noises, and flight control systems to reduce noises from airflow around the craft. And while they're at it, they'd also like to see "non-'line of sight' communication systems between the UAV and the ground station," so that the UAV could fly around outside the view of its operators.
Project Hoot kicks off with a conference in Washington, DC on August 15th, at which point owls will join the ranks of hummingbirds, maple seeds and dragonflies in the realm of bio-inspired flying robots. Keep an eye out – because you definitely won't hear ‘em coming.
Photo: Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife