The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has started funding the development of a second test vehicle under the tactically exploited reconnaissance node (TERN) programme.

Tern, a joint programme between DARPA and the US Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR), is aimed at forward-deploying small ships such as destroyers and frigates as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Last year, DARPA awarded Phase III of the Tern programme to Northrop Grumman for the development of a full-scale demonstrator system of a medium-altitude long-endurance UAS, designed to use forward-deployed small vessels as mobile launch and recovery sites.

"Adding the second technology demonstrator enhances the robustness of the flight demonstration programme."

DARPA programme manager Dan Patt said: “Adding the second technology demonstrator enhances the robustness of the flight demonstration programme and enables military partners to work with us on maturation, including testing different payloads and experimenting with different approaches to operational usage.”

Tern's Phase III design involves a tailsitting, flying-wing aircraft with twin counter-rotating, nose-mounted propellers, which would lift off like a helicopter and perform a transition manoeuvre to act as wing-borne flight during the mission.

After completing the mission, the aircraft would return to the base and then prepare to land in a vertical orientation.

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Under Phase III, the Tern programme has completed fabrication of major airframe components, with its final assembly slated to take place in the first quarter of next year.

After completion, the aircraft will be incorporated with propulsion, sensors, and other commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems to create a full-scale technology demonstration vehicle.

DARPA tactical technology office director overseeing Tern Brad Tousley said: “We are making substantial progress toward our scheduled flight tests, with much of the hardware already fabricated and software development and integration in full swing.

“As we keep pressing into uncharted territory no one has flown a large unmanned tailsitter before we remain excited about the future capabilities a successful Tern demonstration could enable organic, persistent, long-range reconnaissance, targeting, and strike support from most navy ships.”

Tern is scheduled to begin integrated propulsion system testing early next year, followed by ground-based testing in early 2018 and finally a series of at-sea flight tests by the end of the same year.

Image: Tern technology demonstrator under construction. Photo: courtesy of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.