US advanced research agency wants larger UAVs on smaller ships

Washington DC
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The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will solicit proposals for putting large unmanned air systems on small ships.

DARPA has announced its intention to hold a competition for medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAS - a size well-represented by the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predator - capable of operating from the US Navy's new littoral combat ships (LCS). The vessels feature a small landing deck designed for helicopters, but have not been considered suitable for fixed-wing aircraft.

The DARPA announcement of an industry briefing specifies an aircraft, called the tactically exploited reconnaissance node (TERN), which would be capable of carrying a 272kg (600lb) payload up to 900nm (1,660km) away from the ship. The programme is meant to produce a flying prototype.

"It is expected that a TERN objective system may explore or leverage new technologies related to precision relative navigation energy addition and mitigation for launch and recovery, and minimal manpower shipboard recovery and maintenance," says DARPA.

Potential methods of adapting MALE aircraft to the LCS deck are not specified, although a number of options - including wingforms optimised for low speeds, greater thrust and rocket boosters - have all been used in similar situations before.

Such unlikely aircraft as Lockheed Martin C-130s and U-2s have famously been successfully tested on aircraft carriers, which have much smaller landing and take-off areas than those for which the aircraft were designed.