The US Defence Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded a Northrop Grumman-led team a project to build a full-scale technology demonstrator system of a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV called Tern, designed to use forward-deployed small ships as mobile launch and recovery sites.
The first two phases of Tern successfully focused on preliminary design and risk reduction. Initial ground-based testing, if successful, would lead to an at-sea demonstration of take-off, transition to and from horizontal flight, and landing—all from a test platform with a deck size similar to that of a destroyer or other small surface-combat vessel, DARPA said in a statement Monday.
“The design we have in mind for the Tern demonstrator could greatly increase the effectiveness of any host ship by augmenting awareness, reach and connectivity,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager. “We continue to make progress toward our goal to develop breakthrough technologies that would enable persistent ISR and strike capabilities almost anywhere in the world at a fraction of current deployment costs, time and effort.”
“ONR’s and DARPA’s partnership on Tern continues to make rapid progress toward creating a new class of unmanned air system combining shipboard takeoff and landing capabilities, enhanced speed and endurance, and sophisticated supervised autonomy,” said Gil Graff, deputy program manager for Tern at ONR. “If successful, Tern could open up exciting future capabilities for Navy small-deck surface combatants and U.S. Marine Corps air expeditionary operations.”
“Through Tern, we seek to develop and demonstrate key capabilities for enabling distributed, disaggregated U.S. naval architectures in the future,” said Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO), which oversees Tern.
The Tern Phase 3 design envisions a tailsitting, flying-wing aircraft with twin counter-rotating, nose-mounted propellers. The propellers would lift the aircraft from a ship deck, orient it for horizontal flight and provide propulsion to complete a mission. They would then reorient the craft upon its return and lower it to the ship deck. The system would fit securely inside the ship when not in use.
The Tern demonstrator will bear some resemblance to the Convair XFY-1 Pogo, an experimental ship-based VTOL fighter designed by the Navy in the 1950s to provide air support for fleets. Despite numerous successful demonstrations, the XFY-1 never advanced beyond the prototype stage, in part because the Navy at the time was focusing on faster jet aircraft and determined that pilots would have needed too much training to land on moving ships in rough seas.
“Moving to an unmanned platform, refocusing the mission and incorporating modern precision relative navigation and other technologies removes many of the challenges the XFY-1 and other prior efforts faced in developing aircraft based from small ships,” Patt said.
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