The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is currently working on an initiative that would allow large drones to take off and land from the surface of small warships - rather than gigantic aircraft carriers.
The program is officially titled Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node program, or TERN for short. As noted above, the goal of the program is to develop an unmanned aerial drone capable of taking off from the deck of a normal ship without having to resort to a helicopter design.
DARPA says Tern, "Envisions using smaller ships as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude long-endurance fixed-wing unmanned aircraft."
Essentially, the program is looking to accomodate drones designated for surveillance flyovers and combat strike missions. The goal of the program is to have a prototype ready to launch within 40 months. Remember, the Navy has long wanted a drone equipped with missiles and advanced surveillance gear that is capable of taking off and landing from its full-size aircraft carrier ships. The Tern program, if successful, would certainly complement the Navy's vision for carrier-based drones.
Currently, the United States Navy is experimenting with a drone prototype known as the X-47B which boasts a 62.1-foot wingspan. The Navy plans to launch the X-47B from a carrier deck for the first time in May. While the larger aircraft carrier-based drone would be able to be launched and retrieved further out to sea, Tern would be useful closer to coastlines.
"About 98 percent of the world’s land area lies within 900 nautical miles of ocean coastlines," DARPA program manager Daniel Patt explained. "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."
DARPA forsees the ship capable of launching Tern being as small as USS Independence type of Literal Combat Ships offering a 7300 square-foot flightdeck. In the concept art above, the Tern drone is flying above a Burke-class destroyer with an even smaller flightdeck.