Unmanned Systems News 5/3/2013

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DARPA Wants UAVs on Small Ships Throughout Ocean

An artist's rendering of the TERN program. Image courtesy DARPA. 

By Danielle Lucey

DARPA recently announced a new program that aims to cut down on response time for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information for the Department of Defense by strategically positioning unmanned aerial vehicles around the globe on small ships.

The TERN program, an acronym for Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node, addresses the issues of limited flight time for manned aircraft and the need for aircraft carriers or long runways for larger UAVs. 

TERN would use smaller ships as launch points for medium-altitude, long-endurance fixed-wing aircraft, and DARPA is seeking proposals for just how this would happen. The agency is holding a Proposer's Day meeting 20 March at the DARPA conference center.

“It’s like having a falcon return to the arm of any person equipped to receive it, instead of to the same static perch every time,” says Daniel Patt, DARPA program manager. “About 98 percent of the world’s land area lies within 900 nautical miles of ocean coastlines. 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.”

This kind of instantaneous ISR seems to be a theme in recent DARPA program announcements for unmanned systems — ensuring wherever there is a need for intelligence, a robot is strategically close by. In January the agency announced an Upward Falling Payload program that would use unmanned underwater vehicles nested on the seafloor to reach a location at a moment's notice. 

Proposers for the TERN program, named after the seabird known for its flight endurance, will need to devise a launch and recovery method for these fixed-wing aircraft that can meet the demands of the maritime environment in a relatively limited space. The program will run a total of 40 months, separated into three phases, which will culminate in a demonstration.

"We're trying to rethink how the ship, UAV and launch-and-recovery domains, which have traditionally worked in parallel, can synergistically collaborate to help achieve the vision of base-independent operations for maritime or overland missions," Patt says.