It’s been a busy month for UAVs with some launching from aircraft carriers and others saving lives. Now, the US Navy’s latest unmanned Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System, has taken to the skies. This Wednesday, the 47.6-foot (14.5-m) aircraft, powered by a Rolls-Royce AE 3007 turbofan engine, took off from Palmdale, California. It was under the control of Navy and Northrop Grumman personnel, as part of a series of tests to certify the system for fleet operations.

Built by Northrop Grumman, the Triton flew for 80 minutes in restricted airspace and reached an altitude of 20,000 feet (6,100 m). It’s the key component of the Navy's Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force and is intended to work with the manned P-8A Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft, which replaces the old P-3C Orion, to provide the US fleet with a persistent maritime and littoral ISR data collection and dissemination capability concentrating on the Asia and Pacific regions.

The Triton is based on the Global Hawk UAV, with an improved airframe tailored to maritime operations. It has a suite of multiple sensors, including a multifunction active sensor radar for detecting and identifying ships, an Electro-Optical Infrared Sensor that provides full-motion video and still imagery of surface targets, an Electronic Support Measures system that detects and identifies radar threat signals, and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver for the detection, identification, geo-location and tracking of vessels equipped with AIS transponders.

Triton UAVs will be based around the world, though the five locations have yet to be determined. They will fly missions for as long as 24 hours at altitudes greater than 50,000 feet (15,000 m) and monitor 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km) of ocean at any one time. The shore-based Triton operators will disseminate the data to support surface warfare, intelligence operations, strike warfare, maritime interdiction, amphibious warfare, homeland defense, and search and rescue.

"When operational, the MQ-4C will complement our manned P-8 because it can fly for long periods, transmit its information in real-time to units in the air and on ground, as well as use less resources than previous surveillance aircraft," said Rear Admiral Sean Buck, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group commander. "Triton will bring an unprecedented ISR capability to the warfighter."

Flight tests will continue at Palmdale for several months, then the aircraft will be transferred to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland for integrated systems testing and an independent operational test and evaluation before the system becomes operational in 2015.

"Our goal is to mature the Triton UAS before supporting the Navy's maritime ISR mission," said Captain Jim Hoke, program manager for the Persistent Maritime UAS office, which oversees the Triton program. "The data we collect the next few years is essential to certify the system for operational use."

The video below shows the Triton’s first flight.

Source: US Navy

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