Navy, DARPA To Build Unmanned VTOL Prototype

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Image: DARPA

Image: DARPA

An unmanned aerial system that can take off and land on destroyers and other small military ships is nearing reality. After completing initial design phases, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency this month awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. to build a full-scale demonstration model of the yet-to-be-named UAS. DARPA’s goal is to build a medium-altitude, long-endurance aircraft for surveillance and other missions. The design calls for a tailsitting, flying-wing aircraft with two counter-rotating propellers mounted on the nose. The aircraft would be able to take off and land vertically and fly horizontally. The $93 million contract doesn’t include an estimated $39 million Northrop Grumman will invest up front to demonstrate the prototype, according to a UPI report.

Developing aircraft with these capabilities has long been on the U.S. Navy’s wish list, according to DARPA. The Navy did have an experimental VTOL aircraft in the 1950s, the Convair XFY-1 Pogo, but the development of jets along with training logistics kept the project from moving past the prototype stage. Now, with unmanned aircraft technology available, an aircraft that can land on small seaborne decks is within reach. For the time being, DARPA is referring to the new UAS as the Tern demonstrator, after a joint program with the Office of Naval Research called Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node. “Moving to an unmanned platform, refocusing the mission and incorporating modern precision relative navigation and other technologies removes many of the challenges the XFY-1 and other prior efforts faced in developing aircraft based from small ships,” said Dan Patt, DARPA program manager. “Tern is a great example of how new technologies and innovative thinking can bring long-sought capabilities within reach.”