Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Good-Bye ‘Rapid Eye’

Rocket-Launched ‘Rapid Eye’ Drone’s Rapid Demise

Drones are an indispensable tool in modern warfare: They can loiter for hours, providing crucial surveillance of distant targets. But what if you need to get a drone somewhere in a hurry?

That was the idea behind Rapid Eye. In 2007, Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out science arm, announced plans to package a folding drone inside the nose cone of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The concept was fairly straightforward: In the event of an emerging crisis, you could launch Rapid Eye. Within an hour, the drone would be on station, and once its mission was complete, it could be replaced by another long-loitering, pilotless aircraft.

Tony Tether, the previous director of Darpa, was a fan of the idea. But the rocket-launched drone had some serious conceptual flaws. For starters, lobbing an ICBM across the planet without warning could be mistaken for a surprise nuclear attack. That’s the same general issue that plagues other high-speed, hit-anywhere-in-the-world weapons concepts like Prompt Global Strike. If you want to put non-nuclear payloads like a drone or a conventional warhead on a ballistic missile, you need to make sure you don’t trigger Armageddon.

In a statement to Danger Room, Darpa spokeswoman Johanna Jones confirmed the cancellation of Rapid Eye. “Program and budget priorities resulted in Darpa not continuing to fund the Rapid Eye program,” she said.

But she added that the program reached its 2009 goals, including a “risk management, technology development and system maturation plan” and completion of “conceptual design and system requirements.”

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