Unmanned? Not Exactly

The unmanned MQ-4C Triton—the U.S. Navy’s new persistent, high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform—is no different, as Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 20 pilots preparing for the aircraft’s operational debut next year can attest.

A Triton’s aircrew consists of four members: an air vehicle operator (AVO), tactical coordinator (TACCO) and two mission payload operators (MPOs).

Though the Triton’s flight control system technically flies the aircraft, it needs to be told where to go. That’s where the AVO comes in.

“As the aircraft commander, or the AVO, I’m the ‘pilot’ of the Triton,” said Lt. Cmdr. Tim Beebe, who leads a four-person crew as part of VX-20’s Triton program. “I’m in charge of safe conduct of the flight from startup to shutdown, as well as the tactical maneuvering of the aircraft on station.”

Meanwhile, the MPOs control the Triton’s radar, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera, automatic identification system (AIS) receiver, and electronic support measures (ESM), a four-sensor suite that allows it to locate, identify and track targets across wide swaths of open ocean from altitudes reaching 60,000 feet.

“My job is to operate all the equipment that we use to track various ships and targets of interest over the water,” said Naval Aircrewman Avionics Chief Petty Officer Al Lombardo, a Triton MPO on Beebe’s crew. “Triton’s mission is to find ships and targets of interest, and we’re the ones actually using the sensors to collect the data that we need.”

Data gathered by the MPOs is then relayed to the TACCO, who “takes the sensor information and determines where we’re going to go with it,” said Lt. Alyssa Wilson. “I’m kind of the big picture person. I get radar tracks, EO/IR imagery, ESM data, and we look at it all and we determine the things that we need to push out to a strike group or disseminate via live stream video to the rest of the fleet.”

Perhaps what most distinguishes the MQ-4C from previous ISR platforms is its persistence—because it is controlled remotely, crews can be swapped out before they become fatigued, allowing a single Triton to remain on station up to 30 hours without refueling.

“Instead of having to land and swap out an aircrew or send up an entirely different plane, we can actually just bring in a whole set of crew halfway through a mission and have someone else take over from where we were at, so it keeps us on station a lot longer than it would in a regular manned aircraft,” Lombardo said.

The Triton is designed to work in tandem with the manned P-8A Poseidon…


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By: Jeff Newman

Jeff Newman is a staff writer and contributing editor for Naval Aviation News.


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