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Thursday, Dec 1, 2022
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Sea Drone Starts to Fly In Palmdale

Northrop Grumman Corp. has started limited production on the MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance by the U.S. Navy. Final assembly on the planes is done at Northrop’s Palmdale facility. Triton is a variation of the Global Hawk drone built in Palmdale for the U.S. Air Force as a high-altitude reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft with the ability to stay in flight for up to 32 hours. The Navy version makes improvements to the airframe and wings to accomplish a different mission: surveillance of ships and submarines on the high seas. Doug Shaffer, a vice president and manager of the Triton program, said going into production on the aircraft represents a milestone and shows the project has relevancy to the military. “At the end of the day, this is the unblinking eye for maritime domain situational awareness,” Shaffer said. In addition to naval surveillance, the Triton can also be used for border security, disaster relief and illegal fishing surveillance, Shaffer said. The aircraft is capable of staying in the air for more than 24 hours at an altitude of 55,000 feet. Northrop will produce more than 60 of the aircraft for the Navy at a cost of more than $3 billion. What sets Triton apart from the Global Hawk are the 130-foot long wings, which were strengthened to handle strong winds when descending to lower altitudes to get a better look at ships and other vessels. Also, anti-icing equipment was added to the engines and wings, as well as lightning protection. On the bottom of the aircraft is a new type of sensor giving 360-degree coverage at long and short ranges to identify ships and submarines at sea and for scanning port areas to determine fleet size and strength. The sensor also can zero in on a geographic area of interest for longer periods to better detect smaller targets. Northrop began testing the sensor in 2011. Northrop will initially make three of the Triton aircraft with four follow-up contracts of three planes each. Full production on the plane will last through 2036, Shaffer said. The company will use production lines and suppliers similar to what is used to build the Global Hawk, which is also assembled in Palmdale. The fuselage for Triton comes from a Mississippi company, the wings from Texas and the vertical tail from West Virginia. The sensors were made by outside vendors and Northrop, Shaffer said. “Those all get integrated, fully checked out and we do an initial flight test to make sure everything is operating to specifications,” he added. – Mark R. Madler

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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