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DARPA Seeks To Launch Drones From Ships

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants ideas to let small ships serve as mobile bases for unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

Elena Malykhina

March 5, 2013

2 Min Read

Military Drones Present And Future: Visual Tour

Military Drones Present And Future: Visual Tour


Military Drones Present And Future: Visual Tour (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is inviting proposals for the design and development of systems that would let small ships serve as mobile bases for unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

The Department of Defense faces limitations in conducting airborne intelligence and surveillance with aircraft that take off from land bases. For example, some unmanned aircraft require runaways of a mile or longer. And helicopters, while able to take off vertically, have limited range.

DARPA's program, called Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) after a family of seabirds, seeks a faster, less expensive way to do that work. The idea is to use smaller ships as mobile launch and recovery sites for long-endurance drones.

[ Secuity will always be a key issue. Read Pentagon Unveils Secure Mobile Device Plan. ]

DARPA will host a conference on March 20 in Arlington, Va., to discuss its objectives. The research agency seeks conceptual designs that combine a drone and a launch and recovery system. The specifications call for a 600-pound payload and operating radius of up to 900 nautical miles from the host vessel. The launch and recovery system would have to fit LCS-2-class ships and other surface combat vessels. The specs require a system capable of launching in rough seas and with minimal space requirements.

"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," said program manager Daniel Patt in a statement. The new program will roll out in three phases over 40 months, concluding with a launch and recovery demonstration.

The TERN program is the latest effort by DOD to deploy drones in new ways. DARPA also envisions deploying drones in containers under the sea floor. That program, called Upward Falling Payloads, aims to create ways of storing drones and other technologies in waterproof containers deep in the ocean. The drones would be brought to the surface when needed.

The U.S. Navy is in the early stages of deploying drones on aircraft carriers and in December successfully completed its first at-sea test aboard the USS Harry S. Truman. A Northrop Grumman X-47B was put through trials to assess how well it would operate on a carrier. The Navy plans to demonstrate the first carrier-based launches of UAVs this year.

About the Author(s)

Elena Malykhina

Technology Journalist

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she followed the world of advertising. Having earned the nickname of "gadget girl," she is excited to be writing about technology again for InformationWeek, where she worked in the past as an associate editor covering the mobile and wireless space. She now writes about the federal government and NASA’s space missions on occasion.

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