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 Pentagon’s Mad Scientists Want to Launch Killer Drones From Small Warships

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PostSubject: Pentagon’s Mad Scientists Want to Launch Killer Drones From Small Warships   Tue Mar 05, 2013 9:17 am



The military’s next killer drone could be launched and landed aboard small surface warships, extending the reach of America’s robotic arsenal to more remote battlegrounds than ever before.

That is, if an ambitious new effort by Darpa, the Pentagon’s fringe-science wing, can overcome a technical challenge dating back to the 1980s. Namely: how to boost a drone to flight velocity without the benefit of a five-acre aircraft carrier deck, and without resorting to a speed- and range-limiting helicopter design.

The new Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node program, or Tern, “envisions using smaller ships as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude long-endurance fixed-wing unmanned aircraft,” Darpa announced on Friday. That’s for unarmed spy drones as well as those armed for “strike” missions. The blue-sky researchers want to launch a prototype within 40 months.

Tern complements one of the Navy’s main robotic development efforts. The Navy wants a drone, equipped with missiles and advanced spy gear, to take off and land from a full-sized aircraft carrier, one of the hardest maneuvers in aviation. It’s currently experimenting with a 62.1-foot span, batwing-shaped prototype, called the X-47B, which the Navy expects to launch the X-47B off a carrier deck at sea for the first time by May.

Except the jet-powered X-47B and the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System it will yield will be much farther out to sea than the Tern. “About 98 percent of the world’s land area lies within 900 nautical miles of ocean coastlines,” Darpa program manager Daniel Patt explained in the announcement. “Enabling small ships to launch and retrieve long-endurance UAVs on demand would greatly expand our situational awareness and our ability to quickly and flexibly engage in hotspots over land or water.”


Some of the specs Darpa wants: The as-yet-undesigned Tern drone must carry up to 600 pounds of sensors and weapons while flying out 600 to 900 miles from the launching ship. That places Tern in the same class as the Air Force’s iconic Predator and Reaper, both capable of flying 12 hours or longer while hauling cameras, missiles and satellite communications gear.

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