The U.S. Department of Defense announced a dozen contract awards Wednesday -- worth $541.2 million in combined value. Britain's BAE Systems took the top prize with a $150-million contract to produce HERCULES tank salvage vehicles for the Army. Perhaps the most interesting contract of the day, however -- although not the largest -- went to local U.S. defense contractor Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC).

Northrop Mq
MQ-4C Triton UAV in flight, Source: Northrop Grumman

Northrop Grumman won a $27.6 million option exercise on a pre-existing cost-plus-fixed-fee contract to extend operational and maintenance support of the Navy's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) -- Demonstrator Unmanned Aircraft System through May 2014. The aircraft being supported, four modified Air Force Global Hawks, are precursors to Northrop's own MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicle, which won a Navy competition for the BAMS contract in 2008, beating out both Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the privilege. The Navy is using the BAMS-D modified global hawks for operations in the Middle East, while Northrop collects data on their sensor suite and flight performance, for use in developing the Triton.

As part of the BAMS program, the Triton is designed to provide real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities over "vast" areas of ocean and coastline -- as in 12.6 million square miles in one glance. Based on Northrop's successful Global Hawk design, the Triton is able to fly 24 hours at a stretch, and can provide a full 360 degrees of oversight of this area.

In total, the Navy plans to buy 68 Tritons, in a contract expected to be worth up to $1.2 billion to Northrop.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Northrop Grumman. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.