DARPA’s unmanned anti-submarine warfare vessel that is currently undergoing open-water testing off the coast of California recently set sail with its first payload: a prototype of a low-cost, elevated sensor mast developed through the agency’s towed airborne lift of naval systems (TALONS) research effort.
TALONS is one of the potential mission payloads the vessel, developed under a program called ACTUV (Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel), might employ.
Towed behind boats or ships, TALONS could persistently carry intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and communications payloads of up to 150 pounds between 500 and 1,500 feet in altitude, many times higher than current ships’ masts, and greatly extend the equipment’s range and effectiveness, the research agency has said.
The demonstration took place over two days with 90 minutes of flight each day. The TALONS prototype started out from its “nest” installed on the back of the ACTUV vehicle. It then expanded its parachute and rose to an altitude of 1,000 feet, where it tested its onboard sensors and communications equipment.
Once the test was complete, the prototype reeled itself in back to the nest. The entire process took place as the ACTUV vehicle maneuvered at operationally realistic speeds.
According to DARPA, TALONS demonstrated improvements to the range of the sensors and radios it carried compared to mounting them directly on a surface vessel. For example, TALONS’ surface-track radar extended its range by 500 percent—six times—compared to its range at sea level. Its electro-optical/infrared scanner doubled its observed discrimination range. The TALONS team plugged in a commercial handheld omnidirectional radio; that radio’s range more than tripled.
“I was delighted to explore the possibility of hosting TALONS on ACTUV and from my perspective, the testing could not have gone better,” said Scott Littlefield, DARPA program manager for ACTUV. “We just started at-sea testing of ACTUV in June, and until now we’ve been focused on getting the basic ship systems to work. TALONS was our first chance to demonstrate hosting a real payload and showing the versatility of ACTUV to do a wide variety of missions for which it wasn’t originally designed.”
TALONS is part of DARPA’s Phase 1 research for Tern, a joint program between DARPA and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR). Now that at-sea demonstration is complete, DARPA is transitioning TALONS to the Navy.
In September 2014, DARPA signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with ONR to jointly fund an extended test phase of an ACTUV prototype. In April 2016, a christening ceremony in Portland, Oregon, marked the vessel’s formal transition from a DARPA-led design and construction project to open-water testing conducted jointly with ONR.
DARPA said it would collaborate with ONR to fully test the capabilities of the vessel and several innovative payloads over the next two years. Pending the results of those tests, the program could transition to the Navy by 2018.