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27 June 2016

Northrop Grumman TERN – An Accelerating Programme?

On 24 June the Pentagon confirmed that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is awarding Northrop Grumman an additional U$17.8 million to the $93.1 million contract awarded to the company in January for development of the TERN unmanned aerial system (UAS): specifically, the additional award refers to the construction of a second TERN air vehicle. The original award was made for ‘Phase 3’ of the TERN programme, Phases 1 and 2 having focused on preliminary design and risk reduction.

TERN is a joint programme between DARPA and the US Office of Naval Research (ONR), with support from the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL), to develop a UAS capable of taking off and landing from confined spaces in rough seas and providing efficient operations at long distances over extended periods. Although current capability development is focused on intelligence and surveillance functionality, it is believed that DoD seeks to weaponize TERN in the long term, with a payload thought to be in the 600lbs range. 

The UAS bears a passing resemblance to the Convair XFY-1 POGO experimental vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fighter developed as a USN aircraft in the 1950s, which never proceeded beyond the prototype stage. Northrop Grumman’s vision for TERN is a 40ft wingspan tailsitting flying-wing design, featuring twin counter-rotating nose-mounted 10ft propellers.

The fact that DARPA has made an additional award for a second air vehicle would seem to indicate that one has already been manufactured – or is at least close to being tested. In less than six months, that would indicate a high degree of confidence in the technology demonstrator programme, which seeks to prove the concept for a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAS that could significantly enhance the reach, effect and connectivity of USN vessels.

Picture shows an artist’s impression of the Northrop Grumman TERN UAS, courtesy DARPA.