Navy’s 757-Sized Drone Will Provide Big-Time Surveillance

Northrop Grumman's MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system. Photo: Alan Radecki/Northrop Grumman

Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system. Photo: Alan Radecki/Northrop Grumman

A new drone with the mammoth wingspan of a Boeing 757 is set to give the U.S. Navy some serious surveillance power.

Northrop Grumman and the Navy say they’ve just completed the ninth flight trial of the Triton unmanned aircraft system (UAS), an improvement upon its predecessor in the Air Force, the Global Hawk.

With its 130-foot wingspan, Triton will provide high-altitude, real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) from a sensor suite that supplies a 360-degree view at a radius of over 2,000 nautical miles, allowing monitoring from higher and farther away than any of its competitors.

But should a closer look be necessary, unique de-icing and lightning protection capabilities allow Triton to plunge through the clouds to get a closer view and automatically classify ships. And in recent tests, the drone was able to easily recover from perturbations in its flight path caused by turbulence.

Although Triton has a higher degree of autonomy than the most autonomous drones, operators on the ground will be able to obtain high-resolution imagery, use radar for target detection and provide information-sharing capabilities to other military units.

Thus far, Triton has completed flights up to 9.4 hours at altitudes of 50,000 feet at the company’s manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California. According to Northrop Grumman, Triton could support missions up to 24 hours.

Northrop Grumman reported earlier that Triton had demonstrated structural strength of the drone’s wing — a key capability that will allow the aircraft to descend from high altitudes to make positive identification of targets during surveillance missions — even when it was subjected to a load at 22 percent above the Navy’s requirement.

“During surveillance missions using Triton, Navy operators may spot a target of interest and order the aircraft to a lower altitude to make positive identification,” said Mike Mackey, Northrop Gumman’s Triton UAS program director, in a statement. “The wing’s strength allows the aircraft to safely descend, sometimes through weather patterns, to complete this maneuver.”

Under an initial contract of $1.16 billion in 2008, the Navy has ordered 68 of the MQ-4C Triton drones with expected delivery in 2017 — a slip from the initial anticipated date of December 2015.
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