The drone technology has progressed by leaps and bounds in the past couple of years. A number of fast drones are available on the market but none of them can compete with the rocket drone made by MIT. The drone called Firefly is a joint project with the US Airforce and has a top speed of 0.8 Machs (614 mph or 988 kph).
The rocket drone is shaped like a zeppelin and is meant to be launched from a fighter jet to collect data or to serve as a distraction in the case of a high-speed chase. The drone itself only weighs 2 to 3 pounds and has a small engine attached to it. Once it is set loose from the aircraft, it deploys its wings and completes its task before it is discarded.
MIT’s AeroAstro group is the “America’s oldest and most respected university aerospace program,” as stated on their website and is behind the project. Firefly’s build is unique and unconventional, even though it doesn’t seem the obvious choice for a drone, that is what sets it apart from the others according to Tony Tao, a Ph.D. student involved in the development.
The project was launched in response to a challenge presented by the US Airforce. They wanted a UAV which was only 2.5 inches wide and 17 inches long and had the ability to fly at Mach 0.8 for more than two minutes. “We use this burn-rate suppressant, which—via chemical decomposition—cools the flame and changes the flame structure so that it actually burns slower,” Tao said in an interview with MIT Technology Review. “You don’t usually want to put a fire extinguisher inside of your fire, but that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
This slow-burning is what allows the rocket drone to fly for a longer period of time than other drones of the same size. Firefly can maintain rocket level speeds for three minutes where others would only last a few seconds. The top of the drone holds the avionics, flight control equipment, and the payload. The bottom half holds the retractable wings and a narrow tail for manoeuvring.
“There was no vehicle with this speed, at this size, that could deploy off an aircraft,” John Hansman, MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, said to Aviation Week. “It is too small for a turbine and too fast for electric, while a pulse-jet presents thermal problems.”
The video below shows Firefly stand burner test.
Another feature that sets the rocket drone apart from others is that each Firefly is 3D printed out of titanium to its exact specifications. This makes it the first 3D-printed rocket to fly in the world. The Firefly team said that it will still be another year before they can safely flight test the drone and are currently finalizing engine burn tests and temperature tests on the electronics.
The video below shows Tony Tao explaining a project for MIT-Lemelson Drive It.