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Contractors Race to Launch Armed Drones From Small Ships

Sailors moving an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, which was the first unmanned craft to catapult launch from an aircraft carrier.

Sailors moving an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, which was the first unmanned craft to catapult launch from an aircraft carrier. // U.S. Navy/AP

Northrop Grumman and Carter Aviation Technologies have been hired for a $9 million effort to conceptualize an armed drone that will launch from a small ship to strike as far as 900 nautical miles away, according to the Pentagon. A test launch is slated for 2017.

Physics is a key challenge in this endeavor. The Defense Department will have to solve the puzzle of "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," Wired reported in March, when the military announced the plan.

Northrop Grumman's share of the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node contract is $2.9 million and Carter Aviation will be paid $2.2 million, Pentagon officials said on Friday. Last month, Maritime Applied Physics and AeroVironment were awarded $2.2 million and $2.3 million, respectively. Defense’s incubator, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, can spend up to $8.9 million on the effort -- the first of three stages involved in launching a prototype. 

Drones typically need large runways, limiting takeoffs to either expensive carriers or foreign land. Departing from sea allows unmanned aerial vehicles to survey and raid adversarial terrain without stationing equipment in a host nation, DARPA officials explained  in March.

Northrop, Carter and the others will have a little less than a year to devise a way of building an affordable aircraft and a conceptual design. The goal is to fly and recover a demonstration drone from a vessel, such as a Littoral Combat Ship 2, within about 40 months. 

Only contractors employed for this phase are eligible for the two later development projects. 

“It’s like having a falcon return to the arm of any person equipped to receive it, instead of to the same static perch every time,” Daniel Patt, DARPA program manager, said during March’s announcement. “About 98 percent of the world’s land area lies within 900 nautical miles of ocean coastlines. 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.”

The drones should "enable new aviation capabilities for the Navy fleet, extending the situational awareness and reach of smaller vessels," contract documents state.

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