Northrop Grumman moves forward on developing long-endurance maritime UAV for small ships

Sept. 29, 2014
ARLINGTON, Va., 29 Sept. 2014. Unmanned aircraft designers at Northrop Grumman Corp. are moving forward on a program to develop a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can launch and recover from relatively small ships for long-term maritime surveillance.
ARLINGTON, Va., 29 Sept. 2014. Unmanned aircraft designers at Northrop Grumman Corp. are moving forward on a program to develop a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can launch and recover from relatively small ships for long-term maritime surveillance.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., have announced a $19.3 million contract modification to the Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems segment in El Segundo, Calif. for the second phase of the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) maritime UAV program.

The DARPA TERN program seeks to overcome limitations of Navy shipboard aircraft surveillance. Helicopters are relatively limited in their maximum distances and flight times, for example, while fixed-wing manned and unmanned aircraft must operate from aircraft carriers or large land bases with long runways, although they can fly farther and longer than helicopters.

The contract modification announced on 22 Sept. 2014 brings the total cumulative face value of Northrop Grumman's DARPA TERN contract to $22.1 million from $2.9 million, DARPA officials say. Northrop Grumman and four other companies won DARPA TERN Phase I contracts in 2013.

Related: DARPA program to launch long-range UAVs from small ships expands to five contractors

In the first phase of the TERN program Northrop Grumman experts studied designs for an operational TERN UAV, and began planning for a prototype flight demonstration in 2017. The other DARPA TERN Phase I contractors are Carter Aviation Technologies LLC in Wichita Falls, Texas; Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. in Manassas, Va.; AeroVironment Inc. in Monrovia, Calif.; and Maritime Applied Physics Corp. (MAPC) in Baltimore.

DARPA is sponsoring the TERN program together with the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) in Arlington, Va. The program seeks to improve aviation capabilities from smaller ships substantially beyond the current state-of-the-art.

The program has three planned phases. The first two phases focus on preliminary design and risk reduction for the TERN system. In Phase 3, a performer would be selected to build a full-scale demonstrator TERN system for ground-based testing, culminating in an at-sea demonstration of launch and recovery.

The TERN program seeks to combine the strengths of aircraft bases on land and sea, by using small ships as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) fixed-wing UAVs, DARPA officials say.

Related: DARPA TERN program seeks to operate long-endurance UAVs from fleets of small ships

The ultimate goal for a TERN UAV and launch system to enable persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities with payloads as large as 600 pounds while operating at ranges as long as 900 nautical miles from a host vessel.

The TERN system should be able to operate from several relatively small ship types in rough seas, including the 2,784-ton Independence-class littoral combat ship (LCS), which is 418 feet long and 104 feet wide, with a large aft-located flight deck. Other ships of interest are amphibious transport docks, dock landing ships, and Military Sealift Command cargo ships.

The program will produce a low-cost TERN prototype UAV to demonstrate launch, recovery, and enabling technologies. Program thrusts include novel launch and recovery techniques; aircraft navigation; ship motion prediction; high lift devices; high stroke recovery or arrestment devices; and compact stowage arrangements. Other technologies of interest include automated maintenance systems; robotic deck handling; and automated vehicle preflight checkout.

TERN envisions UAV systems for deep overland ISR and strike missions without forward basing or host nation help. Long radius of action enables access to remote geographic areas while long endurance enables persistent ISR and striking fleeting targets.

Related: Navy to locate mission-control center for fleet of maritime-patrol UAVs at Jacksonville NAS

A relatively small ship deploying with two or more UAVs could offer high-tempo ISR and strike operations on an as-needed basis, DARPA officials say. The program does not involve helicopters or airships.

Named after the family of sea birds known for flight endurance, TERN aims to make it much easier, quicker and less expensive for the U.S. military to deploy ISR and strike aircraft almost anywhere in the world, DARPA officials say.

The TERN medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV and automated launch-and-recovery system will be able to launch a 600-pound payload and fly as far as 600 to 900 nautical miles from its host vessel.

The TERN program envisions a capability "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, the DARPA TERN program manager.

Related: Navy issues urgent order to equip MQ-8 helicopter UAV with maritime surveillance radar

"About 98 percent of the world’s land area lies within 900 nautical miles of ocean coastlines," Patt explains. "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.”

On this contract modification Northrop Grumman will do the work in El Segundo, Calif.; San Diego; Cincinnati; Benbrook, Texas; and Mojave, Calif., and should be finished by September 2015.

For more information contact Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems online at, or DARPA at

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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