The Navy is playing the waiting game, hoping the weather at Naval Air Station Patuxent River clears up so the MQ-4C Triton unmanned surveillance aircraft can conduct its first sensor flights this week.

The Navy's MQ-4C Tritons are progressing on key test points. Photo: Northrop Grumman.
The Navy’s MQ-4C Tritons are progressing on key test points. Photo: Northrop Grumman.

Severe winds and rain have kept the service from being able to test the unmanned aerial system’s AN/ZPY-3 multi-function active sensor radar, said Sean Burke, the service’s program manager for the persistent maritime unmanned aircraft systems program office.

“We were supposed to fly last week, we were supposed to fly on Saturday, and we’re also restricted to taking off from only one runway at Pax River because of the developmental nature of the test program,” he told reporters during an April 13 briefing at the Navy League’s 2015 Sea Air Space exposition. “We’ve been hampered by winds and weather, but we’re primed to fly.”

MQ-4C manufacturer Northrop Grumman [NOC] has conducted radar maturation efforts, including 42 flights of the system on a General Dynamics [GD] Gulfstream 2 testbed before the live flights on the Triton itself, Burke said.

“The radar modes are working very well for us,” he said. “Really what we’re worried about now is making sure that the integration at the system level is all synced up, so the mission control computer and the flight control computer and the [navigation] solutions and the timing of all those things are absolutely matched up and connected to what the operators are seeing down at the control station on their radar display screens.”

The MFAS radar, also manufactured by Northrop Grumman, contains a rotating sensor that provides 360 degree coverage of oceans’ surface and airspace, Burke said. Its maritime-surface-search (MSS) mode can track maritime targets, while the inverse-synthetic-aperture radar (ISAR) can be used to classify surface ships. That data is then passed on to the Triton’s sensor operators, the carrier strike group and the Boeing [BA] P-8A Poseidon pilots who will be be partnered with the MQ-4C to conduct maritime missions.

Initial operational capability is slated for 2018, after Northrop Grumman has delivered four aircraft to the Navy. However, certain systems will be integrated into the UAS at a later time. In 2020, the aircraft will incorporate high and low band signals intelligence capability to detect radar, as well as the systems architecture necessary to support it, Burke said.

Additionally, Triton will not be equipped with an airborne due regard radar until at least 2020, but that will not affect its ability to operate in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Fleet areas of responsibility, Burke said. Very few aircraft can fly at the same 50,000-foot altitudes as the MQ-4C, meaning there is little traffic that operators will need to worry about when piloting the UAS. When it needs to swoop down to land or to collect imagery at lower altitudes, the operator will connect to a ground, airborne or surface ship based radar that can convey the movements of other aircraft, allowing the Triton to avoid collisions.

The Navy may eventually add a dedicated airborne relay capability or a laser designator to Triton, although there are no plans to do so at this time, Burke said.

The airborne due regard radar was originally slated to be fielded in the aircraft at the time of IOC. However, problems miniaturizing the front end of the system led the Navy to pause its development and consider other options. The Navy announced last week that Northrop Grumman will build of the radar’s front end, while Exelis [XLS]—the original developer of Triton’s due regard radar—will build the back end and assemble the system.