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DARPA’s TERN drone gives US Marines a new wingman


  • Most of today’s drones are limited by the distances they can fly and the payloads they can carry, now the US wants an eye in the sky that can help protect, and resupply troops wherever they are


Terns are a family of shorebirds that can nest in marginal conditions and thrive everywhere from beaches to wetlands to rivers to inlets. Now TERN, or the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node, is a drone that’s been developed by Northrop Grumman for both the DARPA and the Office of Naval Research, with the goal of giving the Navy and Marine Corps a versatile flying scout that can support ships and troops almost anywhere they are – at land or sea.


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Earlier this week, DARPA announced funding for Phase III of the project, which aims to take it from a mere concept to a working, flying, fighting robot by 2018.

So what, exactly, does TERN do? It perches on ships, even small ships without runways, and then takes off vertically like a helicopter, before transitioning to plane-like horizontal flight in midair – in some ways it’s reminiscent to the hunter-killer jets you see in the Terminator movies. Not that i’m drawing any comparisons though – obviously…



That transition provides the flexibility of landing in small spaces, while also the efficiency of flying efficiently for long distances. With a planned range of 690 miles, TERN will greatly expand what the Navy can see at sea, as the autonomous drone observes and relays what it films via satellite link.

The TERN program also aims for 1,000 pounds of payload, so the drone can carry cameras, sensors, and weapons. The drone is designed for both scouting and air support, so that marines operating far from aircraft carriers or runways on land don’t have to fight without a friendly robot watching their backs from overhead.


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As designed, TERN can operate from any Navy ship with a helicopter landing pad, or even large guard rail – hey, why not!? After all, yes it’s high tech and one day it will be heavily armed but isn’t the original concept drawn from a small turkey like bird?

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