Triton maritime surveillance UAV technology upgrades: Navy's just getting started

July 24, 2018
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY – The U.S. Navy Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton long-range maritime patrol unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) became operational this year, yet the unmanned aircraft continue to evolve and add capabilities with upgrades that include signals intelligence (SIGINT) and sense-and-avoid radar.
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY – The U.S. Navy Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton long-range maritime patrol unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) became operational this year, yet the unmanned aircraft continue to evolve with upgrades and add capabilities that include signals intelligence (SIGINT) and sense-and-avoid radar.

The Triton has become operational at Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19 (VUP-19) at Naval Base Ventura County at Point Mugu, Calif., in its primary mission of maritime patrol to augment the Navy's P-8A Poseidon manned maritime patrol aircraft.

The MQ-4C, a variant of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk long-range reconnaissance UAV, was designed primarily for wide-area surveillance over vast ocean areas. Compared to the Global Hawk, Triton has reinforced air frame and wing, de-icing systems, and lightning protection.

The Triton can descend through clouds for a closer look at ships and other targets at sea. Its sensors enable the UAV to track ships over time by gathering information on their speed, location, and type. The UAV also has basic electronic surveillance capability to monitor radar signals from ships at sea.

In addition to broad-area maritime surveillance, the Triton also supports search-and-rescue missions, and assists the P-8 aircraft in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) using a variety of electro-optical sensors and a surface-search radar system.

Related: Northrop readies SIGINT for MQ-4C Triton UAV

The long-endurance UAV serves this purpose with VUP-19, and is expected to deploy to Guam later this year for its first official overseas military missions.

The Triton's next fundamental evolution has begun, with $19.3 million order last week for Northrop Grumman to buy unique materials in preparation for outfitting the Triton with sophisticated signals intelligence (SIGINT) capability. The aim is to replace the Navy's EP-3 manned SIGINT aircraft.

The SIGINT upgrade, called Triton integrated functional capability (IFC) 4.0, is installing a SIGINT sensor payload with components from Boeing Argon ST in Fairfax, Va., and Sierra Nevada Corp. in Sparks, Nev. Navy plans call for delivering the IFC 4.0 version of the Triton UAV in 2021 to coincide with the Navy’s retirement of the EP-3.

The EP-3 aircraft are based on the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion four-engine turboprop airframe, and are scheduled to be retired in 2021. Much of the EP-3's mission and electronic equipment is secret and is conducted in high-threat areas where long-range standoff is necessary.

Long-term plans for improving the Triton UAV don't end there. The Navy is working with industry to equip the MQ-4C with a small-but-powerful sense-and-avoid radar system to enable the UAV not only to avoid collisions with other manned and unmanned aircraft, but also to operate safely in controlled airspace alongside commercial passenger jetliners and other aircraft.

Related: Navy and Northrop celebrate Triton maritime-patrol flight operations at Point Mugu, Calif.

Last fall Navy officials moved forward with a plan to refine a sense-and-avoid radar system for the Triton UAV from RDRTec Inc. in Dallas. This system results from a project begun four years for RDRTec to design a sense-and-avoid radar system for the Triton and the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter.

RDRTec experts refined the company's Radar Autonomous Collisions Avoidance System (RACAS) Sense and Avoid (SAA) radar technology into the Common RACAS (C-RACAS) that can serve the Fire Scout and Triton UAVs.

C-RACAS is a C-Band radar that provides the UAVs not only with sense-and-avoid capabilities, but also with the ability to avoid bad weather. C-RACAS provides the Triton with situational awareness of surrounding aircraft by determining airborne object location and estimated flight path.

The Triton UAV with sense-and-avoid radar is expected to join the fleet in 2023 -- two years after the SIGINT version is to become operational.

It's likely the Triton UAV will remain in the Navy inventory for many years to come, and these will not be the only enhancements for the unmanned aircraft. Future improvements might include hyperspectral electro-optical sensors for surveillance and weather monitoring, real-time networking for blending sensors from other aircraft with the Triton's sensor suite, and communications relay packages to provide beyond-line-of-sight long-haul military communications.

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