By Samantha Masunaga / Los Angeles Times
A high-flying drone with surveillance sensors and a wingspan longer than that of a Boeing 737 will be the newest way for the U.S. Navy to monitor the seas.
The first operational MQ-4C Triton drone will be delivered by Northrop Grumman Corp. to the Navy in the next week at Point Mugu Naval Air Station near Oxnard, California, with a second drone to follow by year-end. The two drones will be tested at Point Mugu before being deployed to Guam next year.
During low-rate initial production, Northrop Grumman will make three Tritons a year.
Eventually, the Navy will have 68 of the drones, a lucrative production cycle that analysts said will help Northrop Grumman maintain its knowledge of high-altitude, long-endurance drones and keep its production line up and running.
Total program costs for Triton were estimated at $16.8 billion as of December 2016, according to a Defense Department report released in July. That number was almost 17 percent higher than an estimate a year earlier, an increase the report attributed to modernization.
Triton, together with the P-8 Poseidon jet, is intended to replace the propeller-driven P-3C Orion, which has patrolled the sea for the Navy since the early 1960s, and the EP-3E Aries II aircraft. The drone will assume the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance duties, while the P-8 Poseidon will focus on anti-submarine warfare.
The Navy said Triton’s endurance, which is listed at more than 24 hours, would allow it to keep “constant watch” over the ocean surface and “augment” the P-8’s ability to detect surface ships and submarines.
An upgraded version of the drone with enhanced intelligence capabilities will be available by 2020, and the program is expected to enter full-rate production in 2021.
“It’s a 24-hour unblinking eye in the sky,” said Doug Shaffer, vice president and program manager for Triton at Northrop.
Triton is part of Northrop’s Global Hawk family. It is produced on the same line and looks nearly identical to the high-altitude surveillance and reconnaissance drone that has been used by the U.S. Air Force in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Both drones have wingspans of 130.9 feet and a length of 47.6 feet. Their control systems are described as “man on the loop,” in which human operators at ground stations simply punch in waypoints and mission plans for the drone to follow. Those operators can monitor data the drones send back and instruct them to return to the base.
But there are a few key differences. Triton has been optimized for the inclement weather it could face while soaring above the oceans, with lightning protection strips on the nose and elsewhere on the aircraft, heater blankets on the edges of the wings and de-icing systems on the engine inlet.
This drone will also be able to perform a so-called dip maneuver, a Navy request that will allow the aircraft to descend through clouds from its highest altitude of about 55,000 feet to a lower level to take a closer look.
Some of the drone’s sensors are also specific to its mission.
On a recent weekday at Northrop’s Palmdale facility, the first two operational Tritons were geared up in a hangar, with one going through systems checks. A yellow covering protected the radar at the bottom of the aircraft, which can rotate 360 degrees to identify ships based on a number of factors, including length.
Just below the aircraft’s nose is a ball-shaped imaging sensor that can capture images and video, even at night. Data are primarily transmitted on a wideband satellite communications link.
Analysts say Triton has benefited from the lessons Northrop learned during Global Hawk’s development and production, when the program was slammed for high costs and issues with flight reliability. Analysts said concerns about Global Hawk’s price have receded over the past few years as operating costs decreased with greater usage.
But there have been a few hiccups during development.
In 2013, after delays and cost overruns, the Navy ordered that work be stopped on Triton’s air-to-air radar subsystem, which was intended to help the drone sense and avoid other aircraft. Shaffer said that radar has been replaced, for now, with a traffic alert and collision avoidance system, which is a transponder system that’s on most standard aircraft.
Northrop plans to add the sense-and-avoid radar in a future upgrade, he said.
Last year, Bloomberg reported that the Pentagon had flagged manufacturing flaws in Triton’s wings as early as 2013. Shaffer said the company worked with subcontractor Triumph Aerostructures, which builds the wing in Texas, to fix that issue.