By Jeff Newman
A decade ago, the U.S. Navy purchased two first-generation RQ-4 Global Hawks to see if it could adapt the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned high-altitude surveillance aircraft to keep watch over the seas.
In 2008, the Navy deployed the aircraft, renamed the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS-D), to conduct real-world operations in what was initially intended as a six-month test deployment.
“So they tried it out, and seven years later they’re still flying it in theater, and the combatant commanders don’t want to let it go, and that’s why we’re building Triton,” said Lt. Cmdr. Glenn “Neo” Rioux, government flight test director for the MQ-4C Triton, the Navy’s successor to BAMS-D.
Similar in appearance to Global Hawk, Triton, which began flight testing at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland, in April, boasts a 131-foot wingspan—similar to that of a Boeing 757 airliner—and is designed to fly up to 30 hours continuously without refueling at altitudes reaching 60,000 feet.
Triton features a suite of four sensors—maritime radar, which provides 360-degree surveillance; an automatic identification system (AIS) receiver; electronic support measures (ESM) that detect radar signals from seafaring vessels; and an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera, which can take high-resolution pictures and video of suspicious targets. However, the real show-stopper is the airframe, and its ability to provide “persistent” coverage over a wide swath of ocean, Rioux said.
“The difference is that it’s on this airframe that’s flying at a very high altitude and is, you’ll hear this word again, persistent,” he said. “Because of how efficient this airplane is at altitude, it has a very long time that it can fly, and when you pair that up with multiple airplanes and multiple crews at the ground control stations, you can rotate airplanes through to provide continuous coverage of an area, and that’s the persistent piece.”
In addition to being able to fly far longer on a tank of gas than current Navy aircraft, the unmanned Triton also does not have the limitations that come with having human beings onboard.
Once in the air, Triton can use its radar, officially known as its Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS), to sweep the sea for targets. It will scan the same area multiple times and only alert the ground crew to objects it detects consistently, Rioux said.
“We don’t really see any visual radar returns. We see processed information where the plane says, ‘Hey, there’s a ship here,’” he said. “There are times where radar energy bounces off waves, so the higher the sea state is, the more returns the radar is receiving, but that is just radar noise. The hardware and the software are supposed to filter out those spurious returns and figure out, ‘Hey, I’m getting a strong return consistently here, there’s some object there that this energy is bouncing off of.’”
Once the radar has picked up an object of interest “that we want to get a closer look at,” it can switch to another mode that produces a “silhouette-type” image, Rioux said.
The radar also works alongside Triton’s AIS receiver and ESM sensor to identify ships.
Similarly, Triton’s ESM sensor is designed to not only detect radar signals but recognize what type of ship is transmitting them.
“So if the ESM system picks up an emission and it’s the same or similar to the characteristics of a radar system that they normally have on ships, if you have a dot from the radar and a line from the ESM, well now I can say that there’s something there and it’s radiating this system, or something like it. It’s another piece of the puzzle,” Rioux said.
For an even closer look, Triton is able to descend thanks to wings that are resistant to ice and tough enough to endure strikes from hail, lightning and even birds. From below the clouds, the plane’s EO/IR camera can take pictures or provide continuous video surveillance of a suspect ship.
“The EO/IR, especially at the altitudes that we fly at, is like looking through a soda straw, so in order to find someone on the water, you need to know where they are to be able to point the camera at it,” Rioux said.
The Navy plans to order a total of 68 Tritons from manufacturer Northrop Grumman, with the goal of having the first aircraft operational by 2017 and working in tandem with the manned P-8 Poseidon. Together, both platforms are intended to replace the P-3C Orion and EP-3E Aries II surveillance aircraft. While the Triton’s aerial endurance will allow it to keep constant watch over the ocean surface, the P-8 is able to detect both surface ships and submarines.
Jeff Newman is a staff writer and contributing editor to the Naval Aviation News magazine.