Albert McKeon

Feb 8th 2021

The Triton Aircraft Quickly Makes Sense of a Mysterious Sea


It’s often said that data is the new oil. With vast quantities of data, organizations can bend the curves of scientific discovery, create innovative business products and services, and better understand consumers.

Yet, just like real oil, if you have a glut of data, it’s almost useless. The U.S. Navy is one such organization trying to make sense, in real time, of massive amounts of information. It might have found an engine for its oil: an unmanned aerial vehicle with advanced processing powers to provide in-the-moment insight about the world’s seas.

The MQ-4C Triton aircraft, built by Northrop Grumman, began supporting U.S. Navy operations in early 2020 with the aim of demonstrating unprecedented time-on-station and data collection capabilities as part of an early operational capability deployment.

But it’s not just the autonomous capabilities of Triton that has the Navy excited; it’s the aircraft’s ability to process a massive amount of data for operators and intelligence analysts to consider. Navy personnel can quickly use the analyzed data to discern an authorized shipping vessel from an unauthorized, potentially threatening one.

The Gigabyte Problem

Data is indeed everywhere. With just about every type of organization and business now emphasizing digital-first operations and strategies, data serves as the linchpin to efficiency, productivity and ingenuity.

But as with anything in life, you can have too much of a good thing. Organizations are tripping over structured and unstructured data from a wide variety of sources. Data comes from just about everywhere: customer relationship programs, patient records, financial accounts, legal cases and more. Advances in technologies, particularly the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), means more connected devices and more data. Biomedical monitors, smart thermometers, autonomous vehicle sensors and just about every device imaginable can collect data that can be analyzed.

And that’s the tricky part: analyzing it all. Even organizations that have data scientists can’t keep up with data. And forget about those that can’t rely on trained experts to make heads or tails of information. It’s estimated that by 2025, the world will produce 463 billion gigabytes every day.

Just like any other organization, the Navy faces a data challenge as it deploys advanced technologies. At first blush, the Triton aircraft would seem like just another source of data to manage: An unmanned vehicle that will give military commanders in the Pacific region, and eventually around the globe, all sorts of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information. Yet, the Triton is unique for more than its ability to fly for more than a day without coming “back home.” The aircraft also solves the gigabyte challenge for the Navy; its onboard analytical processor will sift through data in the air and make the jobs of military decision-makers much easier.

A Vast Theater

“Triton is a real paradigm shift in unmanned systems,” said Bill Beck, director of advanced development for Northrop Grumman’s Triton program. “There’s a persistence associated with it that’s mind boggling.”

To put this persistence in context, Beck pointed out that Triton will be on a mission longer than the shifts of the Navy personnel who will be managing those missions.

In sports, it’s difficult to compare athletes of different eras because they accomplish essentially the same feats but under different circumstances. Gear, training methods and travel have all changed through the decades. In surveillance air flight, it isn’t a stretch to compare aircraft from different eras. It’s perfectly acceptable to contrast the Triton to, say, the P-3 Orion maritime aircraft of the 1960s because this discipline is all about machinery that is evolving. In fact, it’s appropriate to examine how Triton builds on P-3’s long legacy of mission critical capability and extending that capability to integrate state of the art electronics, software, sensors and data analysis.

The original P-3 had an analogue data system that couldn’t be transferred until the plane returned from a mission, Beck explained. The Triton, in comparison, is a high-powered network relay and data center with wide-band satellite connectivity. It receives messages and data input from a variety of sources — other planes, ships at sea and land sensors — and synthesizes it all to create a picture of the theater of operations it’s canvassing. That picture is created and transmitted over satellite link in near-real time to ground operators. Triton mission operators further disseminate that information using the Navy’s networks.

And quite a theater it will be: Triton has an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles and its 360-degree radar can monitor 2.7 million square miles of ocean in a single flight, from altitudes higher than 55,000 feet.

The MQ-4C’s mission payload includes multiple sensors and radars specifically designed to take data in the maritime environment. They account for the movement of water and wind in order to absorb key information.

Still, all those advanced technologies would matter little if all if the data that Triton collects, sorts and analyzed couldn’t be disseminated quickly during the mission, instead of at the end when the plane returns. That’s why the data links that send information from the aircraft back to where Navy personnel are observing flights are critical to Triton’s successes.

“The data links on Triton are what make it all happen. That was a big consideration,” Beck said of the design process. “A major design and operational consideration is how much processing needs to be done aboard the aircraft, autonomously. Too little processing aboard makes for a huge amount of data that needs to be offloaded, requiring large and available communications links. Too much processing aboard, with too little bandwidth available to offload data, and the operators and analysts will question whether they are really getting all the information and data that they need.”

Limitless Potential

Between the advanced sensors and data analytical capabilities which are continuing to be evolved on Triton, the Navy can accomplish a broad range of surveillance tasks.

Trying to locate specific vessels in packed and dense waterways is like looking for a needle in a haystack, Beck said. “These dense areas are a great place to hide and conduct mischief. With advances in AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning), Triton is able to sort through much of the noise and confusion in a way that allows clarity that the human eye simply cannot discern.”

Triton will be able to home in on vessels in crowded waterways and discern whether they should legitimately be there or pose a risk to shipping. And Triton enables the Navy to conduct finely grained searches on empty waterways as well as broader surveillance, he said.

With Triton’s first deployment in the books and more to come, the sky is the limit, as is the sea. “Time matters,” Beck said of the aircraft’s real-time data processing. “With Triton, you can figure out what you’re looking at, and what you’re encountering. Time is of the essence, so sooner is better.”