WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy said on Tuesday it continued to examine options for a system to help Northrop Grumman Corp's new MQ-4 Triton high-altitude unmanned spy plane detect and avoid other aircraft, and expected to decide on a new approach in less than a year.
The Navy last year halted work on a complex "sense and avoid" radar being developed by Exelis Inc after the company ran into technical challenges in trying to develop a system small enough to fit on the nose of the drone.
Sean Burke, deputy program manager for the Triton program, told reporters at an annual Navy League conference that the Triton was making good progress in flight testing and development, but it had proven technically challenging to scale down the complex, 360-degree radar needed for the new sensor.
"We're taking a very hard look at what the right way forward is, and whether we continue with ours or whether we take a step in another direction," Burke said. He said a decision was expected within a year but declined to be more specific.
Exelis confirmed that work had been halted on the radar last year but had no additional comment.
Burke said there was no other sensors on the market now that met the Navy's requirements, and that officials were also looking at other technology options besides radar.
The Navy needs the new sensor to help avoid other aircraft since operational plans for the Triton call for it to shift from its normal flight altitude of over 60,000 feet to as low as 5,000 feet to photograph and record areas of interest.
Commercial aircraft do not fly at the higher altitudes where Triton will generally fly, but the sensor will give it "eyes in the cockpit" and allow it to move to lower altitudes safely.
The plane will also need such sensors to get certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for broader integration into U.S. airspace, Burke said.
The Navy plans to have two Triton aircraft operating in 2017, and four by 2018. The planes will carry out persistent wide area surveillance, but their capabilities will be expanded over time to help them listen for sonar buoys and other signals, and to relay airborne communications.
Burke said if development had been completed, Triton would have been ideally suited to help hunt for the Malaysia Airlines plane that has been missing in the Indian Ocean for a month.
He said the plane was in flight testing now, but could not be used in the global search since its cameras and other sensors would not be integrated and flight tested until September.
An earlier demonstration plane built by Northrop could not be used because it relied on commercial satellites whose reach did not extend to the remote ocean area where the plane is believed to have crashed, Burke said.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mohammad Zargham