MOSS POINT, Miss. — A Northrop Grumman vice president and a representative of the Navy signed the fuselage of a new drone Tuesday to kick off production at Northrop's Unmanned Systems plant.
The noon ceremony was in honor of Triton, a high-altitude surveillance drone for the Navy. The aircraft will be able to stay aloft for 24 hours, flying at an altitude of 11 miles and covering 2,000 miles of ocean at a time. Northrop, which is set to build 68 for the Navy, has produced two test models.
The first Triton should roll off the assembly line in fall 2014. The Moss Point plant will build the fuselage, or central part of the aircraft, and then send it to the company's California plant for wings, the tail and test flights.
Triton is similar to the Global Hawk, an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft Northrop builds for the Air Force for surveillance over land.
The Moss Point plant also produces the fuselage for the Fire Scout, an unmanned Navy helicopter.
The first three Tritons, estimated to cost $280 million with equipment, ground stations and test flights, are part of a $1.8 billion research and development contract to get the program operational.
Northrop Grumman is to produce three Tritons at a time at first and then possibly increasing to groups of
five, company Vice President and Project Manager Steve Enewold said Tuesday.
For the Moss Point plant, this is the next step, building high-altitude drones for the Navy, he said.
It will keep the plant fully filled with a steady stream of production. It will keep the production crews learning and busy for the next 10 years, Enewold said.
"The potential is there to increase the production rate," he said.
The Triton is a little bigger than the Global Hawk and has the wing span of a 737 passenger jet, said Warren Comer, a spokesman for Northrop's Aerospace Systems.
The Navy actually has a version of Triton flying now, Enewold said, over the northern Arabian Sea in the Middle East.
The drone can be used to track shipping, collect data for fighters and warships and could even aid in spotting drug trafficking over water, he said.
It uses Advanced Electronically Scanned Array radar that sits on a pedestal at the bottom of the plane and can scan in all directions.
The drone is not armed.
With its long-range capabilities it will update the Navy's surveillance system, which still uses, in part, a system that has been in use for 50 years.
Jackson County Economic Development Foundation Director George Freeland said the production "can only bode well for us" in Moss Point and in the county.
The workforce at the high-tech plant is at 70 and not expected to increase soon, officials said.