Cadets competing to design stealth drone for Air Force

October 14, 2011
photo - Cadets use a wind tunnel to test a model of a stealth drone they've designed for the Air Force. Photo by Photo courtesy of Air Force Academy
Cadets use a wind tunnel to test a model of a stealth drone they've designed for the Air Force. Photo by Photo courtesy of Air Force Academy 

It’s a stealthy, twin-engine, unmanned marvel of technology that’s unmatched by America’s peers or enemies.

And, to rub it in, America’s latest high-tech aircraft is designed by Air Force Academy cadets.

The diminutive drone is designed to die at the hands of F-22 and F-35 fighter pilots, who need a target that mimics what enemy planes may be able to do in another decade or so. In wind tunnel tests at the academy’s aeronautics laboratory this month, the plane showed it could be ready to take to the sky in as little as two years.

“There are still a whole lot of people who have to say yes,” said academy professor Steve Brandt who has worked with cadets on the plane since it was conceived in 2003.

The academy has tackled Air Force projects in the past, including cadet-built micro satellites.

But the drone, if adopted, would be the first academy-designed plane to join the Air Force fleet.

The project started eight years ago when the Air Force realized it had a problem with its training drones. For years, the service had converted retired F-4 Phantom fighters to flying targets.

But in the modern age, shooting up Vietnam-era jets isn’t much of a challenge. So the Air Force asked the academy and other design teams to dream up a new drone.

Only the academy and one other engineering team remain in competition for the drone’s design.

“I love it,” said senior cadet Justin Merrick of Parker, who has spent long hours over the past year studying the drone’s aerodynamic profile. “It’s an opportunity to do something real.”

When built, the target drones will be 40 feet long with a 24-foot wingspan. Every surface on the drone is angled to deflect radar beams at odd angles, so the craft can’t be spotted on radar.

American stealth aircraft programs have proven to be some of the most expensive military projects in history. The vaunted F-22 Raptor fighter, arguably the world’s most advanced aircraft, costs $300 million per plane.

The academy’s program will be comparatively cheap, with each drone costing $3.5 million.

Part of the low price tag comes from having free engines. The academy’s plane will fly with used engines from T-38 trainers that are at the end of their service lives.

The logic is that the drones are on a suicide mission, so why send them to their doom with brand new turbojets?

The academy is working with models of the plane built with a piece of technology that’s almost as impressive as the aircraft itself: The academy’s three dimensional printer.

The printer fires a laser into a slurry of plastic resins, building objects microns at a time by hardening tiny amounts of the material. In a few hours, a 1/24th scale model of the plane suitable for use in the wind tunnel emerges, saving days or weeks of construction time.

The plastic models and a larger wooden model have been tested at the academy and at the aeronautics school at the University of Washington in Seattle.

After a series of refinements, data show the plane is almost ready for take off.

It’s a major milestone  given that stealth technology is one of the most difficult to master in the world of flight.

Only America has fielded operational stealth planes. Aerospace powerhouses Russia and China have spent decades working on stealth planes, but only recently unveiled flying prototypes.

The academy’s design, if picked by the Pentagon possibly later this year, will be sent to an aircraft manufacturer that will build it.

“This would be the first academy plane to go into large-scale production,” Brandt said.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0194
Twitter @xroederx
Facebook tom.roeder1

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