Contractors Vying to Build Ship-Launched Drone

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

AeroVironment and Northrop Grumman are jockeying for the chance to build a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system that can launch off the decks of small ships.

The program — known as the tactically exploited reconnaissance node, or TERN — is being developed jointly by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research. Smaller ships will serve as mobile launch and recovery platforms for medium-altitude systems.

“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,” said Dan Patt, a DARPA program manager in a press release.

In March, the agency chose AeroVironment and Northrop to participate in phase two of the program, which will focus on preliminary design and risk reduction. The winner of the third phase — which could be announced later this year — will go on to build a prototype and begin demonstrations, said Steve Gitlin, vice president of marketing and communications at AeroVironment.

Right now, smaller ships such as destroyers can only launch manned or unmanned helicopters off their decks. That limits how far the ship can see out, he said.

“DARPA’s idea is to develop an unmanned aircraft solution that can operate off those ships but can operate [at] much greater distances for much longer durations” than traditional assets, Gitlin said.

“That delivers a new kind of capability to significantly expand the footprint of those smaller naval vessels and project power on a much more distributed basis,” he said.

The program could result in the creation of a new category of unmanned aircraft, he said.

Both AeroVironment and Northrop Grumman were awarded $19 million for phase two, which whittled the playing field down from five companies.

Without disclosing details of its offerings, Gitlin said AeroVironment is focused on the current phase and is confident it will move on to the third.

Citing the competitive nature of the program, Northrop Grumman declined to comment, but said in a statement that its “solution taps into the company’s proven expertise and experience in developing and deploying operational unmanned systems in harsh and challenging environments at sea.”

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology, DARPA

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