Navy Surveillance Drone Undergoes First Round of Flight Tests

By Valerie Insinna

The Navy is one step closer to having its own fleet of unmanned aircraft capable of conducting long-endurance surveillance missions at high altitudes. The MQ-4C Triton completed its initial test flight phase in March.

“The system performed exceptionally well during flight test,” Capt. Jim Hoke, the service’s Triton UAS program manager, said in a statement.

The service plans to buy 70 aircraft from prime contractor Northrop Grumman at a cost of $189 million per unit, according to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office. Initial operating capability is scheduled for 2017.

During testing designed to evaluate the air vehicle’s performance at various altitudes and speeds, the Triton flew a combined 81 hours during 13 flights. It reached a maximum altitude of almost 60,000 feet.

After a second aircraft completes flight testing at Northrop’s Palmdale, Calif.-facility, both air vehicles will be transported to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

There, the Navy and Northrop Grumman will install and test the aircraft’s sensor package later this year, company spokesman Warren Comer told National Defense.

“As part of this effort, thousands of hours of simulated flight tests have been conducted in our laboratory,” said Mike Mackey, the company’s program director. Company officials believe the use of simulations will ultimately cut down the number of flight tests needed, thus saving time and money.

One part of the sensor package — a sense-and-avoid radar to help the UAV evade other aircraft — is still under review, Comer said. Last year, the Navy paused development of that system, built by ITT Exelis, because of schedule delays. Service officials indicated that all options were on the table, including rebidding the contract.

“We’re working closely with them to define an updated schedule for further development of this capability,” Comer said.

The Navy intends to use the Triton to collect intelligence, thus reducing the burden on manned platforms that are needed for more difficult missions. The unmanned aerial system will be complementary to the new P-8 Poseidon aircraft, which will perform anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.

Topics: Business Trends, Procurement, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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