Scramble the Saucer!

Aerospace: Gearing up for the voyages of the starship SiMiCon.

An unmanned aircraft, looking very much like a tiny version of Star Trek's USS Enterprise, may soon be heading into airspace where no one in their right mind would want to go.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, like the Predator and the Global Hawk have received high marks for missions over Afghanistan. But they require lengthy runways for takeoff, which may be hard to come by in hostile territory; and they lack the ability to hover in place.

Now Norwegian developers have come up with the disc-shaped SiMiCon rotorcraft that could overcome these shortcomings using a flying saucer design. The circular fuselage, which is about 14 feet 8 inches in diameter, contains retractable rotor blades that spin rapidly to attain lift. Once the craft is in the air, a small jet engine provides forward flight. If the craft needs to hover, the operator extends the rotor blades outward once more. Small amounts of sideways thrust from the jet engine keep the craft from spinning like a top.

Wind tunnel tests have encouraged codesigner Ragnvald Otterlei. Exactly how the rotor blades will extend and retract has to be worked out, he says, as does the mechanism that will allow the craft to change direction. SiMiCon hopes to have it airborne in five years.