Northrop Grumman just unveiled its design for a flying-wing tail-sitter drone capable of landing on any surface without a runway, which could turn the U.S. Navy’s smaller ships into de facto fleet of aircraft carriers.
The idea is to combine the advantages of a jet and a chopper into one tight, fleet machine. Using a pair of counter-rotating propellers on the nose and body, the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node, or TERN, lifts off and lands in the same manner as a helicopter. Yet, once airborne, it can operate on 90-degree turns just like flying a plane. So ships too small for traditional runways will be able to store and deploy huge numbers of the devices.
DARPA has awarded Northrop Grumman $93 million to develop the third phase of the TERN program, which involves demonstrating the design’s effectiveness with a full-scale drone for testing. Assuming it proves itself in ground-based trials, the drone moves on to testing at sea on ship decks about the size as would be found on a destroyer. Between this and the late-summer announcement for expendable Gremlin drone designs, DARPA’s understandably bullish on upgrading our drone system.
Today’s fleet of about 273 ships includes just 10 aircraft carriers, with military officials and politicians lately arguing over whether that’s enough ships to ensure pre-eminence as China adds fresh vessels. Making our smaller ships capable of bigger things could be a good point in favor of keeping it at its current size. Now if only we can make them invisible.