Northrop Grumman Chosen for Maritime Drone Demonstrator

 - December 28, 2015, 2:19 PM
Darpa released this artist's rendering of the tailsitter Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node platform. (Image: Darpa)

Updated on December 29, 2015

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has chosen Northrop Grumman to develop a prototype medium-sized unmanned aircraft system that would be capable of operating from small naval ships. Darpa awarded the company a $93 million “other transaction agreement” to build the prototype, according to a December 24 contract announcement by the Department of Defense.

On December 28, Darpa released a concept drawing of a tailsitter, flying-wing aircraft with twin counter-rotating nose-mounted propellers. The demonstrator aircraft will bear some resemblance to the Convair XFY-1 Pogo experimental aircraft the U.S. Navy developed in the 1950s but never advanced beyond the prototype stage.

Darpa originally awarded contracts to five companies to conduct conceptual design trade studies under the first phase of its Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program, which is cosponsored by the Office of Naval Research. The agency selected Northrop Grumman and Aerovironment to advance to the design phase in September 2014. However, this past September Aerovironment announced that Darpa had dropped it from consideration for the program’s third phase.

Operating from a destroyer or other naval vessel, the TERN air vehicle would provide long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over greater distances and time frames than currently possible with manned and unmanned helicopters. The TERN Phase III effort will focus on the design and fabrication of a full-scale demonstrator, initially for ground testing. Darpa has said a flight demonstration could take place in 2017. "Through TERN, we seek to develop and demonstrate key capabilities for enabling distributed, disaggregated U.S. naval architectures in the future," said Bradford Tousley, director of Darpa's Tactical Technology Office.

During an event that Northrop Grumman hosted for a small group of invited reporters in Palmdale, Calif., in mid-December, the company revealed a model of its TERN concept. The model resembled a flying wing with contra-rotating rotors for lift and forward flight, Breaking Defense reported. Designed to operate from the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship or DDG 51 guided missile destroyers, the vehicle would take off and land vertically, then transition to horizontal flight.