DARPA is expecting to complete risk reduction studies in September, and select one of two competing designs for medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (MALE UAS), that will be capable to operate from small and medium naval vessels. As part of Phase 2 of the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) research and development program the agency is funding risk reduction studies performed by Northrop Grumman Corp. and Aerovironment Inc., based on preliminary designs proposed by the two companies in the earlier Phase I. The program is jointly managed between DARPA and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR).

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“To offer the equivalent of land-based UAS capabilities from small-deck ships, our Phase 2 performers are each designing a new unmanned air system intended to enable two previously unavailable capabilities: one, the ability for a UAS to take off and land from very confined spaces in elevated sea states and two, the ability for such a UAS to transition to efficient long-duration cruise missions,” said Dan Patt, DARPA TERN program manager. “Tern’s goal is to develop breakthrough technologies that the Navy could realistically integrate into the future fleet and make it much easier, quicker and less expensive for the Defense Department to deploy persistent ISR and strike capabilities almost anywhere in the world.”

The Tern program envisions using smaller ships of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) or DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS), to provide long-range ISR and other capabilities from the decks of forward-deployed small ships. By 2017 DARPA aims to conduct full-scale, at-sea demonstration of the selected TERN prototype UAS from a vessel with the same deck size as an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.

[ismember]Drones developed under the TERN program will be able to provide long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and other capabilities over greater distances and time periods than is possible with current assets, including manned and unmanned helicopters. Further, a capacity to launch and retrieve aircraft on small ships would reduce the need for ground-based airstrips, which require significant dedicated infrastructure and resources.

According to DARPA, Tern would enable on-demand, ship-based unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations without extensive, time-consuming and irreversible ship modifications. It would provide small ships with a “mission truck” that could transport ISR and strike payloads to very long distances from the host vessel. The solution would support field-interchangeable mission packages for both overland and maritime missions. It would operate from multiple ship types and in elevated sea states.

The two $19 million contracts were awarded in September 2014. The first two phases of the Tern program focus on preliminary design and risk reduction expected to complete in six months (Sept 2015).

In Phase 3, one performer will be selected to build a full-scale demonstrator Tern system for initial ground-based testing. That testing would lead to a full-scale, at-sea demonstration of a prototype UAS scheduled for 2017, on an at-sea platform with deck size similar to that of a destroyer or other surface combat vessel.[/ismember]