Military Embedded Systems

DARPA unmanned VTOL aircraft program for small ships won by Northrop Grumman


December 29, 2015

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

DARPA unmanned VTOL aircraft program for small ships won by Northrop Grumman

ARLINGTON, Virginia. A team lead by Northrop Grumman Corp. won phase 3 of the DARPA Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program, which will enable small-deck ships such as destroyers and frigates to have their own unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) to run intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions around the clock.

State-of-the-art UASs currently lack the ability to take off and land from confined spaces in rough sea conditions and achieve efficient, long-duration flight. TERN, which is a joint program between DARPA and the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research (ONR), looks to provide these and other previously unattainable capabilities.

“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,” says Dan Patt, DARPA program manager.


The first two phases of TERN were focused on preliminary design and risk reduction. In Phase 3, DARPA officials plan to build a full-scale demonstrator system of a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS created to use forward-deployed small ships as mobile launch and recovery sites. Initial ground-based testing, if successful, would then lead to an at-sea demonstration of takeoff, transition to and from horizontal flight, and landing—all from a test platform that has a deck size similar to that of a destroyer or other small surface-combat vessel.

“Through TERN, we seek to develop and demonstrate key capabilities for enabling distributed, disaggregated U.S. naval architectures in the future,” says Bradford Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO), which oversees Tern.

The Tern Phase 3 design's goal is a tailsitting, flying-wing aircraft with twin counter-rotating, nose-mounted propellers. The propellers would then lift the aircraft from a ship deck, orient it for horizontal flight and provide propulsion to finish a mission. They would then reorient the aircraft upon its return and lower it to the ship deck. The system would also fit securely inside the ship when not in use.

According to a DARPA release TERN’s capabilities have been on the Navy’s wish list in one form or another dating back to World War II. The production of the first practical helicopters in 1942 enabled the U.S. military realize the potential value of embedded vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft to guard fleets and reduce the reliance on aircraft carriers and land bases.

The TERN demonstrator, DARPA officials say, will bear some resemblance to the Convair XFY-1 Pogo, an experimental ship-based VTOL fighter designed by the Navy in the 1950s to enable air support for fleets. Despite numerous successful demonstrations, the XFY-1 never moved beyond the prototype stage, in part because the Navy at the time was more focused on faster jet aircraft and determined that pilots would have required 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 says.

DARPA and Navy officials have a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to share responsibility for the development and testing of the TERN demonstrator system. Officials at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) has also expressed interest in Tern’s potential capabilities and are providing support to the program.


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