Navy Surveillance Drone to Wait Until 2020 for Collision Avoidance System (UPDATED)

By Valerie Insinna

Naval Air Station Patuxent River, MD — Days after the Navy’s new long-range surveillance drone flew its first cross-country flight, the service’s program manager announced the aircraft will likely not be equipped with a sense-and-avoid system until at least 2020.

Fielding such a system remains a requirement for the MQ-4C Triton program, said Capt. Jim Hoke, program manager for persistent maritime unmanned aerial systems. “We think we have a path ahead. I’m not ready to talk about specifics for it.” He added that his goal was to establish a way forward before his retirement in December.

“It may be a stair-step approach,” with additional capability installed further down the road, he said.

Sense-and-avoid systems that detect other aircraft are required for UAS flying in many countries’ airspace. Triton is scheduled for initial operating capability in fiscal year 2017.

The Navy is still evaluating how this will affect training, testing and operations, Hoke said.

“We are working closely with fleet operators to let them know what the capabilities are, and whether we can come up with tactics, training and procedures to mitigate the fact that we do not have a sense-and-avoid radar in there,” he said. “There’s potential that could impact [operations], but we just don’t know the full impact at this point.”

Triton manufacturer Northrop Grumman Corp. initially awarded ITT Exelis a contract to develop an airborne sense-and-avoid capability, but stopped work on the system in 2013. Navy officials at the time said that all options, including re-competing the contract, were on the table.

The service has since conducted a detailed market analysis to see what other technologies are available. “If there was something off the shelf, we would have gotten it,” Hoke said.

Triton, which will be able to provide at least 24 hours of constant surveillance, is already packed with cameras, radar and other sensors.  Creating a system that can prevent collisions with other aircraft is a difficult technical problem that is compounded by size, weight, power and cooling requirements, Hoke said.

Despite these problems, Hoke said, the future of the program is bright. On September 18, Triton flew 3,290 nautical miles from Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, California, facility to Naval Air Station Patuxent River — the longest flight the drone has ever accomplished.

Triton may be reliable enough that the Navy will be able to meet its operational requirements with fewer than its planned purchase of 68 aircraft, Hoke said. The Navy needs at least 20 Tritons continuously available to support five orbits, he said.

Hoke described piloting Triton as a hybrid between pure autonomy and having to manually control the air vehicle.

“This is not like sitting at a video game with a stick and rudder,” he said. “It was a preplanned flight route that was all loaded in, but the pilots could then activate the take off commands and they were able to change altitudes.” Decreasing flight altitude, for instance, is as easy as simply typing in a command, and “the aircraft will take itself there.”

The other two Triton air vehicles are slated to fly to Patuxent River by the end of October to support upcoming testing, Hoke said. There, the Navy will begin installing sensors — including the radar, electronic support measures system, automatic identification system and electro-optical and infrared cameras. Flight tests will begin early 2015.

The service currently is developing the integrated functional capability 2.2 software, which adds a basic sensor capability to the air vehicle, he said. “The sensors are integrated within the lab environment to make sure all of the messaging is right … so that we can test to make sure we can turn on and do the different functionality of those sensors.”

Not all of those sensors will be fully functional at first, but they will meet the requirements for Milestone C approval, Hoke said. “You won’t have all the modes in the radar." 

The next software build, IFC 3.0, incorporates automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast and traffic collision avoidance system technologies, commonly referred to as ADS-B and TCAS, which will allow Triton to detect and avoid cooperative aircraft also using those systems, Hoke said. All of the air vehicle’s sensors will reach full functionality when the 3.0 software comes online in 2016.
Triton is the first unmanned system that will be equipped with both ADS-B and TCAS, he said.

The Navy plans to pair Triton drones with new P-8 Poseidon multimission maritime aircraft. “You’ll have Triton out there as that persistent stare, it sees something, and a P-8 crew is able to come out and take a closer look,” Hoke said.

The service has considered developing Triton so that it can be controlled by P-8 crews, but that project is unfunded, he added.

The Navy is already seeing interest in Triton from countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan, Hoke said. Earlier this year, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced plans to buy the UAS.

“The Australians are very interested in building that into a full up [foreign military sales] case at some point, and now it’s just [having] the discussion about what the appropriate timing is for that and the commitment from the Australian government,” he said. “We’ll continue to have that dialogue as we go along. “

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the MQ-4C Triton.

Topics: Aviation, C4ISR, Sensors, Robotics

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