Northrop Grumman [NOC] landed a $93 million contract for a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that could revolutionize the flight decks of small surface ships: an autonomous drone capable of conducting surveillance and striking targets.

An illustration of Tern, Northrop Grumman's next-generation unmanned system for maritime ISR and strike. Photo: Northrop Grumman
An illustration of Tern, Northrop Grumman’s next-generation unmanned system for maritime ISR and strike. Photo: Northrop Grumman

During phase three of the Tern program—which originally stood for Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node—Northrop Grumman will complete its final design, fabricate a full-scale system, and then test it in an at-sea demonstration slated for 2018, the company announced on Tuesday. Tern is a joint program spearheaded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

DARPA envisions Tern as an inexpensive medium-altitude, long-endurance drone that can easily be integrated onto small ships without needing to make drastic modifications to the flight deck, effectively giving surface vessels the MQ-1 Predator-like ability to collect intelligence and hit targets if necessary.

Northrop Grumman’s Tern features a flying wing design—which allows for long endurance horizontal flight—with counter-rotating rotor blades that allow the aircraft to take off and land vertically like a helicopter, bypassing the need for a long runway such as those on an aircraft carrier. It will be able to fly from small deck vessels such as the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (DDG 51) or the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

“There are many more small deck ships—DDG class and the like—compared to aircraft carriers in the Navy’s inventory,” Ralph Starace, Northrop Grumman’s director of advanced design for aerospace systems, told Defense Daily. “If you can envision these smaller deck ships having the capability to provide longer reach in terms of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capability, in terms of electronic warfare capability and strike capability off those small deck ships, that could provide a significant game-changing capability for those combatant commanders.”

Tern will be designed with a minimum payload of 500 pounds, he said. It will be able to carry a variety payloads for mission areas such as ISR, electronic attack and communications relay, as well as weapons.

The endurance of the system is planned to exceed 20 hours, depending on the payload and altitude, and the Navy will be able to conduct 24-hour, seven day a week surveillance capability with two air vehicles, he added.

According to the Dec. 24 contract announcement, Northrop Grumman and its team of subcontractors will invest $39 million of their own funding into Tern.

Northrop Grumman subsidiary Scaled Composites will produce the airframe, Starace said. General Electric [GE] Aviation will produce the engine and propulsion system. AVX Aircraft Co. will build the transmission, rotors and rotor hubs. Moog [MOG.A] will produce the actuation system.

First flight of the UAS is scheduled for calendar year 2018, and at sea demonstrations will be conducted later than year, Starace said.

“We intend to highly leverage our Unmanned Systems Center of Excellence to develop and demonstrate this type of demanding unmanned systems capability to advance the Navy’s mission,” Chris Hernandez, Northrop Grumman’s vice president for research, technology and advanced design, said in a news release. “We believe our unique ship-based unmanned systems experience, expertise, and lessons learned from programs including our MQ-8B/C Fire Scout, MQ-4C Triton, X-47A Pegasus and X-47B UCAS, is critical to the success of the Tern.”

The company’s Fire Scout is the Navy’s only UAS with a vertical takeoff and landing capability, Starace said. “We took advantage of a lot of lessons learned there and leveraged that as we looked at our vertical takeoff and recovery capability for Tern.”  For instance, Fire Scout’s vehicle management system will be the basis for Tern’s vehicle control system, he said.

Northrop Grumman’s competitor, AeroVironment [AVAV], announced in September that it had not been chosen for a phase three contract (Defense Daily, Sept. 29).  Both companies had been awarded phase two contracts to complete preliminary designs and conduct risk reduction.

“Our team developed a truly innovative approach to addressing DARPA’s requirements, but our customer elected not to pursue our proposed solution,” Kirk Flittie, the company’s vice president and general manager of its unmanned aircraft systems business segment, said in a news release.