Triton Drone Prepares for First Flight

The U.S. Navy is gearing up for the first test-flight of its MQ-4C Triton aircraft, a wide-spanning 47-foot long surveillance drone equipped with high-tech, next-generation sensors able to conduct surveillance, reconnaissance and communications-relay missions over thousands of miles ocean, service officials said.

The aircraft, which boasts a 130-foot wingspan and can reach altitudes of 60,000 feet, is engineered as a long-endurance surveillance platform, meaning it can stay in the air as long at 30 hours on a single mission, according to Navy figures.

The Triton’s first planned flight is part of an ongoing System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase, in place since the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a $1.16 billion deal to develop the aircraft in 2008, an industry source indicated.

The 89-month SDD phase, which includes initiatives to develop, test and refine the engineering of the air vehicle and integrate the sensor payload, is an acquisition phase aimed at refining requirements for the system and maturing its technologies prior to formal production, an industry source explained.

“The first MQ-4C Triton SDD aircraft, or SDD-1, will conduct taxi tests later this month at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif. Facility,” said Capt. Jim Hoke, program manager.

Thus far, two MQ-4C Triton’s have been built and a third is under construction at a Northrop facility in Moss Point, Miss., an industry source said.  The Navy plans to build additional aircraft and move toward an Initial Operational Test and Evaluation by 2015, a move which assesses the operational and technological readiness of the system prior to formal production.

The Triton UAS, part of the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAS developmental program, is a specially engineered maritime variant of the Air Force’s RQ-4B Global Hawk platform, Navy officials explained.

“The modifications include anti/de-ice, bird strike and lightning protection to meet planned mission profiles and a due regard radar for safe separation from other aircraft,” Hoke added.

The anti/de-ice and lighting protection technologies, which include a reinforced fuselage and wing, are being engineered into the MQ-4C Triton as part of the maritime requirements for its range of anticipated mission sets, Navy and industry officials said.

“The Navy’s maritime variant is engineered to operate beneath the weather and have the ability to quickly be re-tasked as mission requirements dictate,” a Navy official said.

Since identifying ships, watercraft and coastal items are part of the Triton’s mission set, the aircraft is being engineered to ascend and descend to make identification of targets, an industry source added.

“The Global Hawk was meant for high-altitude missions over land. Triton contains upgrades and changes to make it capable of this kind of maritime mission. The difference with Triton is you are going over ocean. The Triton has a 360-degree capability with all of its sensors. The Naval domain is every which way,” he said.

The Triton is equipped with Automatic Identification Systems as part of its sensor payload, giving the aircraft an ability to track ship movements on the ocean by identifying their transponders.

Through a process referred to as manned/unmanned teaming, the Triton is engineered to work in tandem with manned surveillance aircraft such as the P8-A, or Poseidon, according to a Navy factsheet on the program.

In fact, the Triton’s next-generation radar, called the Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS), is a 360-degree radar capability optimized to provide the identification of surface ships over vast areas covering thousands of miles, an industry source said.

The Triton’s sensors also include a high-definition, Electro-Optical/Infra-Red camera and a communications relay device so that it can function as a line-of-sight “node” connecting Naval forces dispersed over a large area.

MFAS is engineered with a multi-mode capability, meaning it can operate in maritime-surface-search (MSS) mode for tracking maritime targets and also in inverse-synthetic aperture mode for classifying ships, an industry source explained.

The MQ-4C can reach airspeeds up to 310 knots and is able to perform persistent surveillance missions over areas up to 2,000 nautical miles, a Navy factsheet confirmed.

Meanwhile, as the Navy develops the MQ-4C Triton UAS program of record, the service has concurrently forward-deployed four BAMS-Demonstrator aircraft to the Navy’s 5th Fleet area of responsibility, a Navy official confirmed.

The BAMS-D aircraft are essentially modified Air Force Global Hawks designed as a Navy demonstration effort to support 5th Fleet Naval commanders while simultaneously informing the development of Triton capabilities.

In fact, the BAM-D aircraft currently performing broad-area surveillance missions in the 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility just reached a milestone of 10,000 flight hours, and industry source said.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Bob

    1.6 BILLION!? That is a typo I hope.

    • blight_

      Indeed, considering the USAF paid for Global Hawk proper.

      Most of that money is probably laundered in the development of the sensor systems, plus integration into the Triton. It’s the usual aerospace racket that has worked pretty well with, you know, JSF.

    • Lance

      Thats a drop in the bucket for this DoDs pork waste in money.


      Well, if it helps, its 1.ONE6 billion. So long as we get a good aircraft out of it. I frankly don’t care of the price. Unless if exceeds 1.5 Billion.

    • tiger

      Program cost. Not per drone.


        Yeah, I meant to mention that in my last comment. Eh.

    • eph49

      OK what’s a viable recon and coordination system worth? 1.6 B to protect how much in deployed assets? Oh, yeah, in today’s dollars and budget restrictions?


        1.16 Billion USD. I mean its only a difference of 440 million.

  • Mr. Horrible

    More typos than usual. MC-4Q => MQ-4C, for starter fixes.

  • ms6

    Coming to a neighborhood near you.

  • Sam

    Will it be able to land on an aircraft carrier?


      130 foot wingspan. Doubt it. A Hawkeye has a 80 foot wingspan. The beam of the ship is 252ft as well. So probably not.

    • STemplar


    • Davis

      Since we have bases and air stations all over the world and this UAV has ~30 hours of endurance, ability to land on an aircraft carrier isn’t too necessary; that’s why we have the X-47B.

    • blight_

      P-3’s don’t land on carriers. It’s not the sole metric of naval aircraft to be carrier-capable.

  • Steve H

    If it helps to save the lives of United States citizens and prevents the coming of another ground war. Then why not? $1.6 Billion to the program… Well I’m sure the program is expensive but is it really that expensive? If it is can we know a little more what type of safety we can feel with this aircraft flying around?

    • Anonymous

      Considering that the U.S. has seeked out war the past 12 years instead of trying to prevent it - I doubt it’ll do that.


        Hmph yes. Yeah, I mean of course we have started a war with NK after they have threatened us and our allies with nukes. Oh wait, we haven’t. And of course we have sent a thousand or so TROOPS as in SOLDIERS to Mali. Oh wait, thats France.


          Oh, EXTREME sarcasm in my last comment.

  • mehrdad

    i would like to know if obama has any plan to gift it to his dear iranian for their new year?

  • Defense Tech Fan

    1.16, not 1.6.

  • John Wolfe

    Now make sure we fly it over Iran and drop it so they can copy it much cheaper with Chinese labor, thank GOD we still have our Mexicans eehh? Oh I forgot they are getting my social security .. oh well the best laid schemes of mice and men oft go astray. You can quote this because its mine,” Political Correctness is Tyranny! ”


      Nice job, at being completely politically incorrect.

  • SFP

    If it helps to save the lives of United States citizens and prevents the coming of another ground war. Then why not? $1.6 Billion to the program… Well I’m sure the program is expensive but is it really that expensive? If it is can we know a little more what type of safety we can feel with this aircraft flying around?

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