The Department of Defense faces limitations in conducting airborne intelligence and surveillance with aircraft that take off from land bases. For example, some unmanned aircraft require runaways of a mile or longer. And helicopters, while able to take off vertically, have limited range.
DARPA's program, called Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) after a family of seabirds, seeks a faster, less expensive way to do that work. The idea is to use smaller ships as mobile launch and recovery sites for long-endurance drones.
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DARPA will host a conference on March 20 in Arlington, Va., to discuss its objectives. The research agency seeks conceptual designs that combine a drone and a launch and recovery system. The specifications call for a 600-pound payload and operating radius of up to 900 nautical miles from the host vessel. The launch and recovery system would have to fit LCS-2-class ships and other surface combat vessels. The specs require a system capable of launching in rough seas and with minimal space requirements.
"Enabling small ships to launch and retrieve long-endurance UAVs on demand would greatly expand our situational awareness and our ability to quickly and flexibly engage in hotspots over land or water," said program manager Daniel Patt in a statement. The new program will roll out in three phases over 40 months, concluding with a launch and recovery demonstration.
The TERN program is the latest effort by DOD to deploy drones in new ways. DARPA also envisions deploying drones in containers under the sea floor. That program, called Upward Falling Payloads, aims to create ways of storing drones and other technologies in waterproof containers deep in the ocean. The drones would be brought to the surface when needed.
The U.S. Navy is in the early stages of deploying drones on aircraft carriers and in December successfully completed its first at-sea test aboard the USS Harry S. Truman. A Northrop Grumman X-47B was put through trials to assess how well it would operate on a carrier. The Navy plans to demonstrate the first carrier-based launches of UAVs this year.