For the U.S. Navy and Northrop Grumman, it’s shaping up to be a banner year in unmanned flight. While the carrier-based autonomous X-47B continues to hit milestones aboard the USS George H.W. Bush somewhere off the East Coast, out west in Palmdale, Calif., today the Navy flew its MQ-4C Triton maritime drone for the first time, marking the beginning of a sea change (pardon the pun) in the way the U.S. military patrols the oceans. The drone flew for 80 minutes and reached an altitude of 20,000 feet.

The Triton isn’t a completely new platform. If it looks familiar, that’s because everyone from the U.S. Air Force to NASA has been using its cousin–Northrop Grumman’s reliable Global Hawk–for years now, for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, environmental monitoring, and meteorological data gathering, among other things. Triton is essentially an upgrade of the Global Hawk, optimized for maritime environments, with a strengthened airframe and de-icing features that allow it to rapidly ascend to and descend from high altitudes.

Those upgrades allow Triton to fly at altitudes nearly ten miles above sea level (its ceiling is listed as 60,000 feet, though it will likely stick to the 53,000-55,000 for most missions) for 24 hours at a time. That high vantage point allows its advanced sensors to take in a 2,000-nautical-mile view of the ocean in every direction. Carrying the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) sensor package (Popular Science awarded BAMS a Best of What’s New award last year) along with a classified advanced radar system, Triton will be able to both detect and identify ships on the water.

Read more at Popular Science

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