FORTUNE — The Navy’s X-47B unmanned combat jet captured headlines and imaginations earlier this summer when it took off and then landed on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. The event marked the first time an unmanned, autonomous aircraft has pulled off such a feat. In doing so, the sleek, stealthy, robotic X-47B ginned up a great deal of hype and speculation surrounding the future of naval aviation and the role these aircraft — still in their prototype phase — might play in future conflicts.
But meanwhile, the more immediate future of unmanned, autonomous maritime aviation — and a critical piece of the U.S. military’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region — is shaping up in Palmdale, Calif., where the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton completed its fourth successful test flight last week. Autonomous aircraft plying the skies over the world’s oceans are closer than many might think.
The differences between the Navy’s long-term plan to field semi-stealthy combat drones and its far more immediate initiative to field a persistent reconnaissance capability over the world’s oceans are myriad, but the reason they’re worth mentioning in the same sentence is that both platforms demonstrate the absolutely massive impact that autonomous flight will have on civilian and military aviation in the years ahead.
And the most striking difference? The X-47B is a technology demonstrator that will never see active service. Triton, on the other hand, is an active Navy development program navigating a tough fiscal environment toward initial operating capacity in as few as four years. If the Triton platform works as advertised, it will provide the U.S. Navy with an unparalleled ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) advantage over the world’s oceans, including the ability to observe 2 million square miles of ocean per day via a single aircraft, a capability dwarfing that of the best manned recon planes in the air today.
“What we’re going to have is the most capable aircraft in all weather conditions,” Capt. James Hoke told reporters gathered at last week’s Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International show in Washington D.C., one of the world’s biggest trade shows for unmanned technologies. That kind of persistent, around-the-clock situational awareness on the high seas will be a game-changer for the Navy going forward, Hoke says. Once fully fielded in 2017, the idea is that the Navy’s Tritons will always be in the sky, observing and tracking every military and civilian vessel within 2,000 nautical miles of each aircraft — or across 2 million nautical square miles per each 24-hour flight.
If the Triton aircraft looks familiar, it should. The MQ-4C is built on the back of Northrop Grumman’s (NOC) RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft that is used by everyone from the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy to NASA for various surveillance and data collection tasks. (NASA uses them to track hurricanes over the Atlantic.) But the Triton is distinctly different from its predecessors, optimized for long-endurance flights in maritime environments via a strengthened airframe and a novel de-icing system that allows it to rapidly ascend and descend from high altitude. Critically, the MQ-4C will also operate autonomously, piloting itself along a route chosen by its mission handlers and notifying them when its sensor suite detects something interesting, cutting down on the number of personnel needed to operate the platform and the complexity of operations.
Triton won’t operate from carrier decks — its wingspan is larger than that of a Boeing 737, far too large for a carrier to accommodate — and it won’t carry weaponry, though the existence of pre-installed hard points on its wings suggest that underwing payloads could be integrated in the future. What Triton will do is surveil unprecedentedly huge swaths of ocean as it orbits, employing a classified sensor suite to maintain 360-degree persistent observation out to 2,000 nautical miles in every direction. This sensor package includes a new state-of-the-art radar system that doesn’t just register surface ships as blips on a map but identifies them as well, distinguishing between commercial shipping vessels, fishing trawlers, or surfacing Chinese submarines.
There are currently four Triton airframes in various phases of flight-readiness at Northrop Grumman’s manufacturing and test facilities near Palmdale, Calif. After the first of those aircraft finishes initial envelope testing at Palmdale this year, it will make the long flight from California to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, where the Navy will go to work proving out the hardware with its own battery of test flights. The first Triton squadron will enter service next year, training on the aircraft will commence in 2015, and the fleet will enter service in 2017 — years before anything else like it.
All said, the Navy plans to spend $13 billion over the course of the Triton program, or roughly $190 million for each of the 68 complete aircraft systems on order, including ground control stations and other associated hardware. That investment will be spread around the industry and the country. While Northrop Grumman manufactures the fuselage and various other parts of the aircraft (it also handles final assembly), Rolls-Royce produces the engine in Indianapolis, Triumph Aerostructures-Vought Aircraft constructs the 131-foot wing in Dallas, and Raytheon (RTN) constructs the sensor turret in McKinney, Texas. Other collaborators include Sierra Nevada Corp., L-3 Communications (LLL), and Aurora Flight Sciences.
For its $13 billion, the Navy believes Triton will be able to operate at lower cost in the future, as it will gather more and better intelligence at a lower cost per flight hour than manned aircraft. It will so with fewer operators on the ground than many other unmanned platforms require. Moreover, Triton is designed to eventually interface with the P-8 Poseidon, the manned maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft that will replace the Navy’s current fleet of P-3 Orion recon aircraft. Eventually, Capt. Hoke says, the Titan will be operated by crews aboard the P-8s, moving naval aviation operations toward a future in which unmanned aerial vehicles and manned aircraft interface to work together seamlessly in-theater.
All of this is assuming defense budget cuts don’t catch up with the Triton program before it reaches fruition. But the Navy is optimistic. The technology offers such a huge leap forward in capability and is already so far along that it would be hard to justify gutting the program now. “We’ll probably have to make adjustments going forward based on budgetary pressures,” Capt. Hoke says. “But Triton has a great base of support.”