The first flight of the flight Triton UAV successfully demonstrated control systems that allow it to operate autonomously (CREDIT: Northrop Grumman)

US Navy surveillance drone completes first flight

A high-altitude surveillance drone being developed by Northrop Grumman has successfully completed its first flight.

The MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) took off from the company's manufacturing facility in Palmdale yesterday before a US Navy and Northrop Grumman flight test team conducted a 1.5-hour flight.

The Triton is specially designed to fly surveillance missions at sea for up to 24 hours at altitudes of more than 10 miles – allowing coverage out to 2,000 nautical miles. The advanced suite of sensors can detect and automatically classify different types of ships.

"First flight represents a critical step in maturing Triton's systems before operationally supporting the Navy's maritime surveillance mission around the world," says Captain James Hoke, Triton program manager with Naval Air Systems Command.

"Replacing our aging surveillance aircraft with a system like Triton will allow us to monitor ocean areas significantly larger with greater persistence."

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor to the Navy's MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program.

"Triton is the most advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR] unmanned aircraft system ever designed for use across vast ocean areas and coastal regions," says Mike Mackey, Northrop Grumman Triton UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) deputy program director.

"Through a cooperative effort with the Navy and our industry partners, we successfully demonstrated the flight control systems that allow Triton to operate autonomously. We couldn't be prouder of the entire team for this achievement."

Additional flight tests will take place from Palmdale to mature the system before being flown to the main flight test facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, later this year.

In 2008, Northrop Grumman was awarded a systems development and demonstration contract to build two aircraft and test them in preparation for operational missions. The Navy's program of record calls for 68 Tritons to be built.

Triton carries a variety of ISR sensor payloads that allow military commanders to gather high-resolution imagery, use radar to detect targets, and provide airborne communications and information sharing capabilities to military units across long distances.

At 130.9 feet, Triton has a wingspan larger than the world's most common commercial airliner, the Boeing 737, and is powered by a single Rolls-Royce AE 3007 engine, which combined with other aerodynamic design features, allows it to fly 11,500 miles without refuelling.

Tom Bell, Rolls-Royce, president for Defence, says: "We congratulate the US Navy and Northrop Grumman for achieving this historic milestone:  the first flight of the Triton unmanned aircraft.

"The Rolls-Royce AE 3007 engine has proven itself with tens of millions of flight hours and we look forward to powering the fleet of Triton aircraft for years to come."

As well as Rolls-Royce, Northrop Grumman's Triton industry team includes Aurora Flight Sciences, BAE Systems, Curtis-Wright Corporation, L3 Communications, Raytheon, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Vought Aircraft Industries.

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