IARPA’s Great Horned Owl Program: collecting intelligence “without anyone knowing you are there”
By End the Lie
The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA), the intelligence community’s equivalent of the mad scientist-like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is seeking to develop silent drones inspired by owls.
For those who are not aware, there have been recent technological leaps of a significant magnitude in the field of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), better known as drone, research and development.
One problem which IARPA seems to be focused on tackling is the sound created by most drone systems which can make effective surveillance quite difficult.
In IARPA’s “Proposers’ Day Overview Briefing” in 2011, they stated that they seek to “enter an area of interest without anyone knowing you are there” and thus need to “develop the technology that enables a new class of UAVs.”
This is all part of IARPA’s Great Horned Owl (GHO) Program which began in 2011. The GHO program was created in order to reduce the ability of the target “to counter [surveillance]” by creating, “Better, more efficient, quiet power sources and propulsion techniques [in order] to engineer the next generation UAVs for ISR [Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance] mission applications.”
“The anticipated innovation in this first phase of the program is a propulsion system that will quietly generate electrical power from liquid hydrocarbon fuel (specifically gasoline or diesel) and enable purely electrically driven quiet flight,” explains IARPA.
According to Aviation Week, a small firm called D-Star Engineering has apparently received the first contract awarded as part of GHO for a whopping $4.8 million.
Keep in mind, GHO is a multi-phase program, with Phase 1 focusing on reducing the noise created by the propulsion units and power sources of drones, known as the “acoustic signature.”
Phase 2, which is completely separate from Phase 1 and thus the $4.8 million award, is going to focus on actually building the technology into a working flight vehicle.
The technique IARPA is leaning towards is quite interesting. Instead of using battery-powered drones, which, while quiet, have little in terms of endurance or payload hauling capability, GHO is focusing on “hybrid turbine-electric propulsion systems.”
These systems run on everyday fuel like gasoline and diesel, but instead of a simple combustion motor (which would be just as noisy as the rest) they are trying to turn the fuel into electricity and then turn that electricity into thrust for the vehicle.
Essentially, it would work something like the above graphic which shows a turbine driving a generator which then produces electricity and directly powers the propulsor. This technique would eliminate gearboxes which are a noise source.
Then, if they choose to add batteries, the drone could fly in “ultra-quiet mode” for a short period of time. When the batteries run out, the engine would start up again in order to power the flight and recharge the batteries.
This ultra-quiet mode likely wouldn’t last all too long, with current estimates around 30 minutes. However, that is enough to snap a few images of a target for facial recognition purposes, run a “threat assessment” and/or some other brief task.
It is plenty of time for a drone to get in and get out without getting noticed, but for now we thankfully likely won’t see any silent drones hovering outside of our open windows all day long.
Then again, if they can devise a laser system like that demonstrated recently, they could very well extend the flight time of these drones indefinitely as well.
The initial goal of the project is to keep the sound under what is known as the 60 phon curve, phon being a unit of the level of loudness for pure tones. Phon, unlike the decibel unit, compensates for the effect of frequency on the perceived loudness of tones, making it a better representation of what humans actually hear.
Keeping the sound levels below the 60 phon curve means, essentially, that no sound can exceed the sound pressure level of 100 decibels at any frequency up to 100 kHz.
IARPA will be testing the propulsion systems while they are not installed from 10 meters away over 15 minutes in a frequency range of 10 Hz to 15 kHz.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time aircraft inspired by owls has been proposed. Indeed, Wired’s Danger Room points out that NASA also explored using the feathers of owls as inspiration for designs.
One positive aspect of this – setting aside the fact that the government continues to spend money which we don’t have, continuously acting as if we actually do have money – is that we likely won’t see any owl-like drones flying around this year.
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