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US Navy’s Triton is high altitude, long endurance drone for persistent surveillance of vast oceans and coastal regions

The US Navy (USN) has awarded Northrop Grumman a USD 255.3 million contract to begin low-rate initial production (LRIP) of the MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The contract for LRIP Lot 1, which was announced by the Department of Defense (DoD), covers three aircraft, one main control station, one forward operating station, training courseware, and tooling. According to the notification, work will be complete by the end of August 2020.

The Triton will be a crucial component of the Navy’s 21st century strategy for conducting surveillance of surface ship and submarine traffic in the vast Pacific and other oceans around the globe. Tritons will work together with the Navy’s P-8A Poseidon long-range manned maritime patrol aircraft to locate and track potentially hostile surface ships and submarines.

The first operational deployment for the Triton, which will operate in concert with the manned Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime multimission aircraft, is scheduled for 2018. The US Navy is expected to buy 68 Tritons UAS. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is expected to procure up to seven Tritons, and Japan has also been named as a potential customer.

The Navy is continuing operational testing of its future unmanned long-endurance maritime surveillance aircraft, the MQ-4C Triton, demonstrating its ability to share critical mission information with the manned P-8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft. During a June 2 flight test at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., a Triton successfully exchanged full-motion video with a Poseidon for the first time via a Common Data Link system, Naval Air Systems Command announced. The test demonstrated the Triton’s ability to track a surface target with its electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera to build situational awareness for a Poseidon crew flying many miles away, further establishing the interoperability of the two aircraft that will be essential to their combined mission of controlling vast areas of ocean.

Separately, the Triton test aircraft also has conducted a series of heavy weight flight tests that will expand significantly the UAVs’ expected time on station by flying at higher altitudes with a full load of fuel, the NAVAIR statement added. In separate tests, the Triton flew the heavy load to 20,000 and then 30,000 feet altitude. The program will continue the heavy weight tests up to the Triton’s top operational altitude of 60,000 feet, NAVAIR spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove told USNI News.

MQ-4C Triton

The MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), is a high altitude, long endurance (HALE) aircraft that is intended to provide real-time intelligence, reconnaissance missions (ISR) over vast ocean and coastal regions, continuous maritime surveillance, as well as search and rescue missions

The MQ-4C “Triton” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) represents a “navalized” form of the original Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk with a few internal and external changes to suit the roles of maritime patrol, surveillance and anti-submarine warfare.

It will provide the high-altitude, theater-spanning coverage that cues more tactically-focused the manned, land-based P-8 Poseidon aircraft and the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance & Strike (UCLASS) drone.

Mission capabilities

The MQ-4C is a high-altitude, long-endurance UAS suitable for conducting continuous sustained operations over an area of interest at long ranges. The UAS can be deployed in a range of missions such as maritime surveillance, battle damage assessment, port surveillance and communication relay. It will also support other units of naval aviation to conduct maritime interdiction, anti-surface warfare (ASuW), battle-space management and targeting missions.

The MQ-4C flying as fast as 310 knots at altitudes to 60,000 feet, is capable of providing persistent maritime surveillance and reconnaissance coverage of wide oceanographic and littoral zones at a mission radius of 2,000 nautical miles. The UAS can fly 24 hours a day, seven days a week with 80% effective time on station (ETOS), will be able to cover more than 2.7 million square miles in a single mission.

The UAV will be able to fly unrefueled for nearly 10,000 nautical miles. Unlike the smaller Predator and Reaper UAVs, the Global Hawk/Triton family is not armed beyond its sophisticated suites of sensors, cameras and communications equipment

The UAS will complement the navy’s Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force family of systems, delivering SIGNET (signals intelligence), C4ISR and maritime strike capabilities. It relays maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information directly to the maritime commander.


Payloads of Northrop’s unmanned system

The payload is composed 360-degree field of regard (FOR) sensors including multifunction active sensor (MFAS) electronically steered array radar, electro-optical / infrared (EO/IR) sensor, automatic identification system (AIS) receiver and electronic support measures (ESM). The payload also includes communications relay equipment and Link-16.

The Triton’s maritime search radar is called the Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS), and will provide the UAV with a 360-degree view of a large geographic area while providing all-weather coverage for detecting, classifying, tracking, and identifying points of interest.

Officials of the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., announced a $39.1 million contract modification to the Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems sector in San Diego to enhance and adjust the Triton’s air-to-air radar, which is still in development and has not yet been test flown.

Northrop Grumman and its air-to-air radar supplier, Exelis Inc. in McLean, Va., are developing a radar for the Triton that will enable the unmanned aircraft to detect other aircraft in the area for sense-and-avoid functionality, as well as for targeting.

Along with the air-to-air and MFAS radar systems, the MQ-4C also will carry an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor that will provide still imagery and full-motion video of potential threats; an electronic support measures package to identify and geolocate radar threat signals; and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) that will detect and track vessels equipped with AIS responders.

The MTS-B multispectral targeting system performs auto-target tracking and produces high resolution imagery at multiple field-of-views and full motion video. The AN/ZLQ-1 ESM uses specific emitter identification (SEI) to track and detect emitters of interest.

Design features

Whilst building on elements of the Global Hawk UAS, the Triton incorporates reinforcements to the airframe and wing, along with de-icing and lightning protection systems. These capabilities allow the aircraft to descend through cloud layers to gain a closer view of ships and other targets at sea when needed and will complement the P-8A Poseidon.

The main aluminium fuselage is of semi-monocoque construction, while the V-tail, engine nacelle and aft fuselage are made of composite materials. The forward fuselage is strengthened for housing sensors and the radomes are provided with lightning protection, as well as hail and bird-strike resistance.

The UAS has a length of 14.5m, height of 4.7m and a wingspan of a 39.9m. It can hold a maximum internal payload of 1,452kg and external payload of 1,089kg.

Engine and performance of the US’s UAS

MQ-4C Triton is powered by a Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine. It is an advance variant of the AE3007 engine in service with the Citation X and the Embraer Regional Jet. The engine generates a thrust of 8,500lb.

The UAS can fly at a maximum altitude of 60,000ft. It has a gross take-off weight of 14,628kg. Its maximum unrefuelled range is 9,950 nautical miles and endurance is 30 hours. The maximum speed is 357mph.


Ground control station

The UAS is operated from ground stations manned by four-men crew including an air vehicle operator, a mission commander and two sensor operators. “The UAS can fly 24 hours a day, seven days a week with 80% effective time on station (ETOS).”

The ground station includes launch and recovery element (LRE) and a mission control element (MCE).
The MCE performs mission planning, launch and recovery, image processing and communications monitoring. The LRE controls related ground support equipment as well as landing and take-off operations.


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