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USAF to jazz up jet juice use

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An American high-tech jet engine design bureau, owned by UK-centred firm Rolls-Royce, will design key power systems necessary for the electricity-heavy combat aircraft of tomorrow. Future fighters and bombers are expected to use huge amounts of electricity to power such things as directed-energy rayguns and/or cyberwarfare electropulse systems.

Flight International reports today that Rolls-Royce's North American Technologies unit - aka LibertyWorks - has won a $690k contract from the US Air Force Research Laboratory under the Integrated Vehicle Energy Technology (INVENT) programme. The Indianapolis-based LibertyWorks development shop was formerly the Allison Advanced Development Company, but has changed names following the acquisition of Allison by Rolls in the 1990s.

Under INVENT, the US air force is seeking various subsystem techologies which will make future aircraft far more electric in nature than they have been so far. In particular, ways are sought to generate much larger amounts of electricity from jet-engine prime movers. The USAF also wants to see better-performing electrical actuator systems, allowing planes to use electricity rather than hydraulics for working control surfaces, undercarriages and so on.

A primary driver for the electric-jet tech is the rising power requirements of modern sensor and communication systems, and the expectation that this will increase still further in future. Next-gen US combat planes are thought likely to feature high-powered radars and jammers able to reach out electronically and meddle cunningly with enemy defences - so called "cyber weapons".

Early versions of such capabilities are said to be present already, in the new generation of Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars seen on such aircraft as the F-22 Raptor superfighter. Even more power-hungry would be out-and-out directed energy microwave or laser rayguns, intended to addle the seeker heads of enemy missiles or even blast them out of the sky. Again, efforts are already underway to develop electrically powered versions of such weapons - at present, weapons-grade beams can only be generated in huge, cumbersome chemically fuelled machinery.

Obviously $690k is chickenfeed in the context of US military development funding - but the INVENT programme would seem to indicate the way the wind is blowing. ®

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