Aug 08, 2020 I Paul Seaburn

Nuclear-Powered Drones? The CIA May Have Had Them in the 1970s

“This memorandum pertains to an operation known as AQUILINE. The number of people holding. AQUILINE access approvals will be held to an absolute minimum. AQUILINE access covers all aspects of the operation.


AQUILINE is a restrictive access involving a small powered glider capable of flying thousands of miles, emplacing devices, interrogating previously emplaced devices, and performing special reconnaissance or collection missions.


It will present bird-like radar, acoustic and visual signatures designed to blend with the ‘n i us signal environment; Possessing a range in excess of *** . it will be capable in in its advanced form of hovering-over-targets for as long as 120 days.”

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Project Aquiline strategic spy drone (Credit: CIA archive)

If you think that sounds like an internal document about the development of a futuristic drone, you’re right. If you guessed it was written in 2020, you’re wrong … it’s a 1960s CIA document just declassified describing a propeller-driven drone disguised as a bird that would fly spying missions over the Soviet Union in retaliation for shooting down a U.S. U2 spy plane. If you think 120 days sounds like a long time for a drone to stay aloft – today’s Predators need to land after 24 hours – you’re forgetting what the main focus of the Cold War was – nuclear power. If you’re wondering if these might have been mistaken for 1960s UFO reports, you may be right.

“Mission flight planning (flight plan, controller's charts, route maps, route photos, computer program-tapes, etc.) will be prepared at Area-51 and ferried to the forward base.”

The complete declassified CIA report is available online, but Forbes (once again straying far from its financial roots) does a superb job of summarizing it. Area 51 would be the base of operations and five prototypes were to be designed, built and tested by McDonnell Douglas. They would have the capability to drop payloads, take regular and infrared photographs, locate air-defense radar and snoop on Russian radio traffic. Data would be sent to a relay C-47 and the drone would be retrieved mid-air by helicopter. However, the most interesting details are the 120-day period between refueling stops and the 1200 mile range. While the first engine would be similar to today’s chainsaw engines, one document describe what would come by 1974.

“It is anticipated that the first R&D flight tests of a vehicle system combining a radioisotope propulsion system will begin in fiscal year 1973. On paper this vehicle system would have an altitude capability of [redacted] and a flight endurance of 50 days or approximately [redacted].”


“It will have vast utility for over-water applications; its radiation hazards will be so low as to permit consideration of its use for over—land missions.”

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Project Aquiline strategic spy drone (Credit: CIA archive)

Radioisotope thermoelectric generators have been used in space probes from Pioneer to Voyager to New Horizons, but this predates those and would be flying over land, where a crash or shoot-down would leak radioactive materials on humans – which the document seems to suggest was not a concern during the Cold War.

So, what happened to the nuclear-powered drones of Project AQUILINE? Forbes says the Aquiline project “was terminated before it became operational” – possibly due to a $100 million difference between the military budget and the cost estimate by McDonnell Douglas. Could the CIA have found someone to make the nuclear drones for less? Probably. Would they tell the public about them? Probably not … especially if they were testing them over cities in the U.S. Will we ever know? A storming of Area 51 has more chance of happening before the CIA declassifies those documents.

Food for thought … especially if you think most UFOs are actually secret military aircraft.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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