DARPA has revealed more details of the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (Tern) program that aims to turn smaller US Navy ships into miniature aircraft carriers for Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV). Phase 3 of program to develop a tail-sitting flying wing designed to take off and land vertically from destroyers and other small ships was awarded to Northrop Grumman, which will build a full-scale demonstrator for sea trials.

Named after the family of long-distance migrating seabirds, Tern is a joint program between DARPA and the US Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR). Its goal is to develop launch and recovery systems for a medium-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft comparable in size to a Reaper drone and capable of operating from a small flight deck in heavy seas up to Sea State 5.

Until now, few details about the Tern were made public, but DARPA has released a Northrop concept image showing an unmanned flying wing that takes off and lands from a tail-sitting position using twin counter-rotating, nose-mounted propellers similar to those on the experimental Convair XFY-1 Pogo of the 1950s that failed to make it past prototype stage.

According to DARPA, this configuration will allow the Tern to lift off vertically from a ship's flight deck, change to horizontal flight, complete a mission, reorient itself, then make a vertical landing on its mothership. When not in use, the craft can be stowed away securely below deck or in the hangar.

Phase 3 tasks Northrop with building a demonstrator aircraft, which will be put through shore-based testing before starting sea trials using a test platform with a flight deck similar to that on a destroyer.

"The design we have in mind for the Tern demonstrator could greatly increase the effectiveness of any host ship by augmenting awareness, reach and connectivity," says Dan Patt, DARPA program manager. "We continue to make progress toward our goal to develop breakthrough technologies that would enable persistent ISR and strike capabilities almost anywhere in the world at a fraction of current deployment costs, time, and effort."