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DARPA, Northrop Move to Develop VTOL Aircraft

December 29, 2015 (Photo Credit: DARPA/Northrop Grumman)


WASHINGTON — The Convair XFY-1 Pogo of the 1950s is one of those famous aviation “funnies” – a weird, experimental aircraft intended to take off and land vertically. The “tailsitter” aircraft might have been the prototype for a new class of fighter that could take off and land from almost any ship with a flat deck.

While there were many technical hurdles, there was one problem that never quite found a solution – while a pilot could strap in and take off straight up, his ability to make a vertical, over-the-shoulder landing was a whole lot harder. The project was dropped in 1956.

But the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles means only the machine, not the pilot, has to look backwards to land, and a new project is in development to field an aircraft that could fly from warships with a small flight deck.

Known as TERN, for Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node, the project is a joint program between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research. Northrop Grumman was recently chosen to build a full-scale demonstrator system of the medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system (UAS).

“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,” Dan Prat, DARPA program manager, said in a Dec. 28 press release.

“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,” he added.

Northrop beat out AeroVironment for the Phase 3 portion of the TERN program and was awarded a $93 million contract on Dec. 24. Northrop reportedly will also contribute $39 million to the effort.

The Northrop TERN model, first shown on Dec. 11, is a flying-wing tailsitter design with a four-point landing wheel configuration, powered by twin, counter-rotating propellers on its nose. The aircraft will take off and land vertically, transitioning to horizontal flight to carry out its mission.

DARPA, in its Dec. 28 release, acknowledged the TERN demonstrator will “bear some resemblance” to the XFY-1 Pogo.

“Moving to an unmanned platform, refocusing the mission and incorporating modern precision relative navigation and other technologies removes many of the challenges the XFY-1 and other prior efforts faced in developing aircraft based from small ships,” Patt said in the DARPA release.

The system produced under the Phase 3 effort, DARPA said, will be able “to use forward-deployed small ships as mobile launch and recovery sites. Initial ground-based testing, if successful, would lead to an at-sea demonstration of takeoff, transition to and from horizontal flight, and landing -- all from a test platform with a deck size similar to that of a destroyer or other small surface-combat vessel.”

DARPA and the Navy, under a June 2014 memorandum of agreement, are sharing responsibility for the development and testing of the TERN demonstrator system. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, DARPA added, has also expressed interest in the program.


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