DARPA’s new drone wants to cover the sea with air support

Next step: making sure the TERN turns out okay

Terns are a family of shorebirds that can nest in marginal conditions and thrive everywhere from beaches to wetlands to rivers to inlets. TERN, or the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node, is a drone developed by Northrop Grumman for both the DARPA and the Office of Naval Research, with the goal of giving the Navy and Marine Corps a versatile flying scout that can support ships and troops almost anywhere they may be. Today, DARPA announced funding for Phase III of the project, which aims to take it from a mere concept to a working, flying, fighting robot by 2018.

So what, exactly, does TERN do? It perches on ships, even small ships without runways, and then takes off vertically like a helicopter, before transitioning to plane-like horizontal flight in midair.

That transition provides the flexibility of landing in small spaces, while also the efficiency of flying efficiently for long distances. With a planned range of 690 miles, TERN will greatly expand what the Navy can see at sea, as the autonomous drone observes and relays what it films via satellite link.

The TERN program also aims for 1,000 pounds of payload, so the drone can carry cameras, sensors, and, most relevantly, missiles. The drone is designed for both scouting and air support, so that marines operating far from aircraft carriers or runways on land don’t have to fight without a friendly robot watching their backs from overhead

As designed, TERN can operate from any Navy ship with a helicopter landing pad, but part of the program includes a robot arm for catching drones, so it’s possible TERN could operate on more ships than just those with helicopters.

Watch DARPA’s Phase III video for TERN below:

Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.