DARPA, Navy want long-range ISR drones for smaller ships

The Tern program plans to build a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS that doesn’t need an aircraft carrier for take-off.

DARPA ONR Tern concept

Long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions are important to military operations, but they require either an aircraft carrier or a ground base from which to launch aircraft. Pentagon and Navy researchers want to change that, by developing unmanned aircraft that can launch from smaller ships without having to modify their decks.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement on a joint program called Tern, which seeks to build a prototype medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system that can launch from a deck the size of an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, DARPA said in a release.

If successful, Tern would allow long-range ISR and other capabilities from a variety of forward-deployed ships.

The program builds on a project DARPA had already started, the similarly titled TERN, for Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node. (Both programs are named for nature’s long-distance flight champs. The Arctic tern, which has the longest migration path, annually travels between the Arctic and Antarctic regions on a meandering path that in some cases can total more than 55,000 miles.)

The goal is to make long-endurance ISR not only more available to ships at sea, but less expensive. DARPA said that Tern “ideally” won’t require extensive modifications to the ships that have the systems.

Arleigh Burke-class destroyers have two helicopter hangars but nothing like a runway, which is part of the challenge. DARPA is experimenting with hybrid unmanned aircraft that can take off and land like a helicopter and fly at the speed of a plane, though whether such a plane could manage long distances might be questionable.

Five vendors are under contract for the first phase of the program, and one or more could be chosen for Phase 2. Both of those phases focus on preliminary design and risk reduction. One will be selected for Phase 3, which will involve building a full-scale prototype for ground and at-sea demonstrations of launch and recovery, DARPA said.

Aside from the project itself, DARPA said the agreement with ONR could set a new template for cooperative research.

“Having a signed agreement with a military service at the outset of a program is an ideal approach to align objectives,” Daniel Patt, DARPA’s Tern program manager, said. “Ideally, this collaboration with ONR could serve as a model for similar agreements with all the services for other DARPA programs, and help create breakthrough capabilities for military users.”

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