Unmanned? Not Exactly

An MQ-4C Triton prepares for flight at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. (U.S. Navy photo


by Jeff Newman

With a name like “unmanned aerial vehicles,” it can be hard to remember that UAVs, at least for the time being, still depend on human aircrews for their safe operation and tasking.

As the air vehicle operator, Lt. Cmdr. Tim Beebe leads a four-person crew as part of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 20’s MQ-4C Triton program. (U.S. Navy photos by Jeff Newman)

The unmanned MQ-4C Triton—the U.S. Navy’s new persistent, high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform—is no different, as Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 20 pilots preparing for the aircraft’s operational debut next year can attest.

A Triton’s aircrew consists of four members: an air vehicle operator (AVO), tactical coordinator (TACCO) and two mission payload operators (MPOs).

Though the Triton’s flight control system technically flies the aircraft, it needs to be told where to go. That’s where the AVO comes in.

“As the aircraft commander, or the AVO, I’m the ‘pilot’ of the Triton,” said Lt. Cmdr. Tim Beebe, who leads a four-person crew as part of VX-20’s Triton program. “I’m in charge of safe conduct of the flight from startup to shutdown, as well as the tactical maneuvering of the aircraft on station.”

Meanwhile, the MPOs control the Triton’s radar, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera, automatic identification system (AIS) receiver, and electronic support measures (ESM), a four-sensor suite that allows it to locate, identify and track targets across wide swaths of open ocean from altitudes reaching 60,000 feet.

“My job is to operate all the equipment that we use to track various ships and targets of interest over the water,” said Naval Aircrewman Avionics Chief Petty Officer Al Lombardo, a Triton MPO on Beebe’s crew. “Triton’s mission is to find ships and targets of interest, and we’re the ones actually using the sensors to collect the data that we need.”

Naval Aircrewman Operator Petty Officer 2nd Class Adrian Asetre, foreground, works as part of a four-member MQ-4C Triton test crew based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. A mission payload operator, Asetre is one of two crew members who operate the Triton’s suite of four sensors. (U.S. Navy photos by Jeff Newman)

Data gathered by the MPOs is then relayed to the TACCO, who “takes the sensor information and determines where we’re going to go with it,” said Lt. Alyssa Wilson. “I’m kind of the big picture person. I get radar tracks, EO/IR imagery, ESM data, and we look at it all and we determine the things that we need to push out to a strike group or disseminate via live stream video to the rest of the fleet.”

Perhaps what most distinguishes the MQ-4C from previous ISR platforms is its persistence—because it is controlled remotely, crews can be swapped out before they become fatigued, allowing a single Triton to remain on station up to 30 hours without refueling.

“Instead of having to land and swap out an aircrew or send up an entirely different plane, we can actually just bring in a whole set of crew halfway through a mission and have someone else take over from where we were at, so it keeps us on station a lot longer than it would in a regular manned aircraft,” Lombardo said.

The Triton is designed to work in tandem with the manned P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft, sweeping the seas for targets and allowing the P-8 to focus more on its anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare missions.

The Triton’s mission and crew makeup also closely mirror those of the P-8 and its predecessor, the P-3 Orion, so it makes sense that the Navy is currently recruiting its MQ-4C crews from those platforms. Beebe and his three crew members, for instance, all flew P-8s or P-3s prior to joining the Triton program.

“For our aircrews, flying Triton is what we call a ‘second tour job.’ So they’ll fly a manned aircraft first, fly a P-3 or a P-8, and then come here to fly Triton afterwards,” Beebe said. “This allows the Navy to bring in someone who’s already qualified in a naval aircraft and has demonstrated the necessary aviation skills to accomplish the mission. Also, most Triton aircrew will come directly from flying manned aircraft in the same operational environment that Triton is going to be operating in, so they’re already familiar with the objectives and missions of that area of operations.”

“I think the biggest contribution to Triton was our fleet experience, just knowing what’s out there, knowing what kind of mission sets we do and how we can perform that same mission set with this system,” Wilson said.

Lt. Alyssa Wilson, the tactical coordinator on a four-person crew testing the MQ-4C Triton , determines what to do with data collected by the aircraft’s sensors. (U.S. Navy photos by Jeff Newman)

But while the mission and crew makeup may be familiar, flying Triton from a control room is a very different experience from flying aboard a P-8 or P-3 over the Pacific.

“You are not physically in the aircraft. You are in a building operating while the aircraft is miles and miles away, and because of that it just feels a bit different and it takes a little bit of time to get used to,” said Naval Aircrewman Operator Petty Officer 2nd Class Adrian Asetre, the second MPO and final member of Beebe’s four-person crew.

“The one thing about Triton is that, once it’s in the air, it could technically do most of its mission without any pilot input. However, that’s not the way we currently utilize it; we give it certain commands to allow us to more efficiently and tactically maneuver the aircraft,” Beebe said. “The main difference between flying Triton and manned aircraft is that with Triton you’re sitting here at what we call ‘one G, zero knots,’ but the aircraft you’re controlling is out there hurtling through space, usually in the vicinity of other aircraft, and you’ve got to be aware of that, and respect that, at all times.”

Another big difference mentioned by Beebe and his crew members is how their situational awareness must be informed exclusively through the aircraft’s sensors.

“Not actually being physically on the aircraft, it was a new thing for me,” Lombardo said. “You have to trust the inputs that your screens are giving you, because you can’t physically see anything happening.”

“As a normal pilot, you’re sitting in the aircraft, you’re strapped in, you can hear the engine running, you can look out the window and see other aircraft-we don’t have any of that with Triton, which creates its own set of challenges” Beebe said. “A lot of what we do requires us to rely on outside sources for our information on the aircraft itself as well as the aircraft’s sensors, what they’re telling us the aircraft is doing.”

In some ways, those differences have made it difficult for the Triton program to recruit pilots, who went to flight school intending to fly traditionally manned aircraft, and often aren’t keen on leaving that thrill behind.

The second MPO, Naval Aircrewman Avionics Chief Petty Officer Al Lombardo checks returns from an MQ-4C Triton’s sensors. (U.S. Navy photos by Jeff Newman)

“I think it’s a challenge because you’re not putting on a G-suit, you’re not strapping up and carrying your helmet out like ‘Top Gun,’ so it kind of takes a little bit of the glamour out of it,” Wilson said. “But I think the mission is so important and I think that this is the future of the Navy, so I think you can still do what you were trained to do as a TACCO, but you can just do it in a different environment and still make an impact on the fleet.”

Plus, there are benefits to flying unmanned aircraft. For one, “it’s easier to stretch your legs out a bit during long missions,” Lombardo said.

Beyond the crew’s comfort, there is also the knowledge that they are at the forefront of a groundbreaking platform that will change the way the Navy keeps watch over the seas.

“Anytime that you can actually help develop something that’s going to help the warfighters down range, it’s always a good feeling,” Lombardo said. “Years from now, if you see something and you know that you actually had a part in making it happen, it’s always just a good feeling to have.”

“The P-3 and the P-8 are so established, but for us and what we get to do, we’re making history by being some of those first people in as the Triton operators,” Wilson said. “I think that’s really cool, that we can affect change for the concept of operations and for what we’re planning on doing with this system, and make a difference because we’re helping that process along.”

“UAVs, they haven’t reached their peak or their full potential, and being part of this community as an operator is rewarding, especially when UAVs are the future,” Asetre said.

“With its high altitude, its long endurance, and the very good sensor suite that it has, we’re going to provide the fleet with a level of situational awareness that’s unparalleled currently, and that’s pretty exciting,” Beebe said. “Triton and unmanned aviation as a whole are going to be a large part of the future of aviation, and Triton is one of the newest acquisition projects in the Navy, so if you want to be involved in some of the newest stuff that’s going on, some of the most cutting-edge technology, this is where you want to be.”

Jeff Newman is a staff writer and contributing editor for Naval Aviation News.

First Triton Squadron Recruiting Members

The U.S. Navy’s first MQ-4C Triton squadron is looking for new members who want to be at the forefront of “the birth of new technology in the Navy,” said Cmdr. Benjamin Stinespring, incoming Commanding Officer of Unmanned Patrol Squadron (VUP) 19.

Interested Sailors, particularly those from the existing maritime patrol and reconnaissance community, can apply to join VUP-19 by marking it as a preference in their standard detailing process, or by talking to their current Commanding Officers.

“Everybody is coming to us in a different manner as far as where they are in their career path, but anybody who is volunteering to come to us can definitely make a case with their command and with their detailer that what they are bringing to the remote-piloted aircraft mission is important and we would welcome them,” said Cmdr. John Levoy, VUP-19’s incoming executive officer, who along with Stinespring will assume his post Oct. 28.

“Anybody who comes to this squadron will have the chance to lay the ground work for the next step in maritime patrol and reconnaissance,” Stinespring said.