Warships are only as effective as far as they can see, so DARPA's Towed Airborne Lift Of Naval Systems (TALONS) research effort is aiming to extend their horizons by giving them a crow's nest 1,500 ft (457 m) tall by way of a towed parafoil. A TALONS prototype recently completed sea trials off the US East Coast as part of a project to provide ships of every size with better long-distance communications and situational awareness.
When ships made the switch from sails to steam power it seemed the days of ship masts were numbered. However, masts carry more than canvas, so most vessels of any size today use masts to carry radar, antennae, and other equipment – and the masts on warships are especially tall. Part of the reason is to carry more equipment, but another important reason is to allow the ship's captain the ability to eyes and ears over as wide an area as possible.
One way of making the "mast" taller is to use aircraft, such as helicopters, but only ships the size of frigates and larger can carry them and they're very expensive to maintain and operate. Alternatives, such as the HMS Dreadnought concept of the Royal Navy warship of 2050, try to get around this with projections of high-tech tethered drones carrying sensors and laser weapons a generation from now. But DARPA is looking for a more immediate and affordable version.
TALONS is part of DARPA's Phase 1 research for Tern (Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node), a joint program with the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research. The idea is to create a cheap, fully-automated parafoil system that can be launched either automatically or by hand and towed behind vessels ranging from small boats to large ships. These parafoils would carry payloads weighing up to 150 lb (68 kg) and fly to altitudes of 500 to 1,500 ft (152 to 457 m), where they would provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and communications services without the need for aircraft.
A TALONS prototype was first tested on land near Tucson, Arizona in June 2014, then in December 2014 it went through mock-up testing and measurement near Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia. In March of this year it was bench tested before moving on to sea trials in June near Baltimore, Maryland and Virginia Beach, Virginia, where it flew to 1,000 ft (304 m) using a mast-deployment technique designed for larger ships.
The trials involved over 20 flights from a variety of platforms as part of the project's goal to develop different versions of TALONS for different vessels. In Chesapeake Bay, the TALONS team tested hand-launching techniques and flew the system to 500 ft (152 m). They also tuned and programmed automatic launch-and-recovery and autopilot systems.
If the TALONS technology proves successful, DARPA says that it could transition to the US Navy.
The video below describes the TALONS project and shows some testing of the prototype.