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DARPA’s new drone will be able to take off and land on small Navy ships autonomously

As part of an ongoing effort to increase the effectiveness and versatility of the U.S. Navy’s unmanned aerial system program, DARPA announced it’s one step closer to creating a UAS with the ultimate capability; to take off and land on small ships completely autonomously. Currently, UASs aboard Navy ships lack the capacity to fly successfully for extended periods of time and are void of the ability to launch from confined spaces — especially in rough seas. Understanding this as a major problem facing the military, DARPA created Tern, a joint program with the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research specifically designed to address and overcome these flaws.

Established in 2014, Tern (short for Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node) is designed to help expand options available to the DoD and address a variety of issues pertaining to the functionality of UASs. Since the joint agreement was officially signed-off on, DARPA has reported successful progression through its first two phases: preliminary design and risk reduction. With Phase 3, DARPA intends to construct a full-scale demonstrator system of a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS designed to launch and land on a small ship.

“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 DARPA program manager Dan Patt in a press release. “We continue to make progress toward our goal to develop breakthrough technologies that would enable persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and strike capabilities almost anywhere in the world at a fraction of current deployment costs, time, and effort.”

Artist rendition of the Tern system

Artist rendition of the Tern system

Initial Phase 3 designs of Tern depict a tail-sitting, flywing aircraft outfit with two nose-mounted, counter-rotating propellers. During a launch, the aircraft’s propellers would lift it off a ship’s deck, stabilize it to fly correctly, and remain the main source of thrust during flight. Once a UAS finishes its mission, it would then navigate back towards its host ship with the propeller’s reorienting it to land back on the ship’s deck. While dormant, the Navy would store the UAS securely somewhere within the ship itself.

Related: DARPA’s latest project? A brain implant capable of restoring lost memories

“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 (a previous experimental vertical take off aircraft) and other prior efforts faced in developing aircraft based from small ships,” Patt continues. “Tern is a great example of how new technologies and innovative thinking can bring long-sought capabilities within reach.”

According to the Navy and DARPA’s Memorandum of Agreement, both parties take responsibility for developing and testing the innovative new tech throughout each of its phases. Moreover, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory also plans to lend a hand during research and analysis as the lab reportedly remains interested in the program and its capabilities. No specific timeline was provided regarding Phase 3 of Tern but if the next step proves successful, all participating parties expect to conduct actual at-sea launch and recovery demonstrations as its final test.