Triton UAV Gets Major Upgrade

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The US Navy MQ-4C Triton long-range maritime patrol UAV became operational this year, yet the unmanned aircraft continue to evolve with upgrades and add capabilities that include signals intelligence (SIGINT) and sense-and-avoid radar.

The Northrop Grumman MQ-4C, a variant of the RQ-4 Global Hawk long-range reconnaissance UAV, was designed primarily for wide-area surveillance over vast ocean areas. Compared to the Global Hawk, Triton has reinforced airframe and wing, de-icing systems, and lightning protection, according to

The Triton can descend through clouds for a closer look at ships and other targets at sea. Its sensors enable the UAV to track ships over time by gathering information on their speed, location, and type. The UAV also has basic electronic surveillance capability to monitor radar signals from ships at sea.

The Triton also supports search-and-rescue missions, and assists the P-8 aircraft in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) using a variety of electro-optical sensors and a surface-search radar system. Sophisticated signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities will be added to the Triton soon, so that it would replace the US Navy’s EP-3 manned SIGINT aircraft. This upgrade includes the installing of a SIGINT sensor payload.

In addition, the Navy is working with industry to equip the MQ-4C with a small-but-powerful sense-and-avoid radar system to enable the UAV not only to avoid collisions with other manned and unmanned aircraft, but also to operate safely in controlled airspace alongside commercial passenger jetliners and other aircraft.

The Triton UAV with sense-and-avoid radar is expected to join the fleet in 2023 — two years after the SIGINT version is to become operational.

It’s likely the Triton UAV will remain in the Navy inventory for many years to come, and these will not be the only enhancements for the unmanned aircraft. Future improvements might include hyperspectral electro-optical sensors for surveillance and weather monitoring, real-time networking for blending sensors from other aircraft with the Triton’s sensor suite, and communications relay packages to provide beyond-line-of-sight long-haul military communications.