AeroVironment joins DARPA program to develop long-range UAVs for launch from small ships

Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) experts at AeroVironment Inc. in Monrovia, Calif., are joining a U.S. military research program to develop a medium-altitude long-endurance UAV for long-term maritime surveillance that can launch and recover from relatively small ships to provide airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike mobile targets anywhere, around the clock.

Scientists at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have awarded a $2.3 million contract to AeroVironment for the initial phase of the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program, which seeks to develop technology to enable small ships to serve as mobile bases for UAVs.

AeroVironment joins Maritime Applied Physics Corp. (MAPC) in Baltimore on the initial phase of the TERN program. MAPC won a $2.2 million DARPA contract for the program last month.

AeroVironment is a veteran designer of small-to-medium-size UAVs such as the RQ-11B Raven, as well as the Wasp, Wasp AE, and PUMA AE. AeroVironment also designs UAV-control systems, and has experience in electric vehicles, batteries and battery chargers, and power cycling and test systems.

The TERN program, sponsored by the DARPA Tactical Technology Office (TTO), 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.

In the first phase of the TERN program experts from AeroVironment and MAPC will study designs for an operational TERN UAV, and plan for a prototype flight demonstration in 2017. For the program’s initial phase, DARPA officials say they expect to award several contracts totaling as much as $8.9 million, so the contracts to AeroVironment and MAPC may not be the only TERN first-phase contracts.

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.

The ultimate goal for a TERN UAV and launch system to enable persistent ISR and strike capabilities with payloads of 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.

DARPA plans to roll out TERN in three phases over three or four years, culminating in a full-scale launch and recovery demonstration. The first phase will include concept definition activities; the second phase will mature technology, with preliminary design; and the last phase will demonstrate a TERN prototype.

A second solicitation will be issued during the first phase of the program to MAPC and other Phase I contractors for TERN Phase II and III work. The second and third phases of the TERN program will be worth about $42 million, DARPA officials say.

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