DARPA expands TERN drone program to make long duration drones that can take off from small ships

Northrop Grumman has received a $17.7 million contract modification as part of DARPA’s Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node, or Tern, program. The modification takes the contract’s total to $150.2 million.

Tern is a project that aims to make it quicker, easier, and less expensive for the U.S. military to deploy drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and strike capabilities.

Northrop’s contract modification goes toward phase 3 of the Tern program, helping to design, develop and demonstrate enabling technologies and system attributes for a medium-altitude, long-endurance shipboard-capable drone launch and recovery system that can be used on smaller ships.

Phase 3 in particular focuses on design, fabrication and testing of a Tern prototype.

Additional tasks included under the modification include the fabrication, assembly and checkout of a second Tern air vehicle.

Small-deck ships such as destroyers and frigates could greatly increase their effectiveness if they had their own unmanned air systems (UASs) to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other capabilities at long range around the clock. Current state-of-the-art UASs, however, lack the ability to take off and land from confined spaces in rough seas and achieve efficient long-duration flight. Tern, a joint program between DARPA and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR), seeks to provide these and other previously unattainable capabilities. As part of Tern’s ongoing progress toward that goal, DARPA has awarded Phase 3 of Tern to a team led by the Northrop Grumman Corporation.

The first two phases of Tern successfully focused on preliminary design and risk reduction. In Phase 3, DARPA plans to build a full-scale demonstrator system of a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS designed to use forward-deployed small ships as mobile launch and recovery sites. Initial ground-based testing, if successful, would lead to an at-sea demonstration of takeoff, 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.

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.