The Navy plans to put its new MQ-4C Triton long-range patrol drone into service sometime next year. The drone is based off the same design as the Global Hawk, but new software upgrades give it the ability for enhanced autonomous operations.
The Triton will come with a Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) which will allow its operator to identify and avoid other aircraft independent of any other air traffic control data. The new software upgrade will also allow a single drone operator to control multiple drones at the same time.
The Navy has successfully tested the new software and while it does not make Triton drones completely autonomous, it’s an important step towards fully autonomous flight. Given criticisms of its drone programs the various military branches are taking a cautions approach towards introducing autonomous operational ability for their drone fleets.
Given a robust TCAS, it’s possible that the Triton drone will be allowed to operate in same airspace as civil aircraft traffic—something the Global Hawk cannot do. Whether for civil or military application, the end game for TCAS, or sense and avoid systems like it, is for drones to operate by themselves. So keep an eye out for further software upgrades for the Triton if you are interested in how the military is moving forward with this technology.