The Triton UAV's initial flight test program, which kicked off with the unmanned aircraft's first flight last May, has been completed. Now cleared to fly at various altitudes, speeds and weights, the Triton is on track to be introduced into the US Navy fleet in 2017.

Based on the Global Hawk UAV, the MQ-4C Triton is designed to carry a variety of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensor payloads and will be used by the US Navy as an adjunct to the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. With a range of 2,000 nautical miles (2,300 miles/3,700 km), the Navy says the UAV will cover more than 2.7 million sq mi (6.9 million sq km) in a single mission.

Over the course of the test program, known as Initial Envelope Expansion (IEE), the Triton test aircraft took to the air 13 times from Northrop Grumman's manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California. The company says the program, which included several long-endurance flights, saw the test aircraft clock up a total flight time of 81 hours and execute 568 data points at altitudes of up to 59,950 ft (18,273 m).

A second test aircraft is now being prepared for flight, before both are ferried to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. The first test aircraft is due to make its first cross-country flight to NAS Pax River in June/July, with the second test aircraft to follow shortly after.

Once there, the aircraft will be fitted with sensor suites before further flight testing intended to validate the capabilities of each payload resumes in the northern summer. The sensor systems, which include a multi-function sensor array (MFAS), are currently being tested separately on a surrogate aircraft and will be configured to function in a maritime environment.

The US Navy plans to build 68 Triton UAVs for persistent ISR mission across ocean and coastal regions.

Sources: Northrop Grumman, Naval Air Systems Command