The Navy plans to continue testing on Triton in the coming months following the first flight of the unmanned aerial vehicle and intends deployment of the first of the aircraft abroad in about three years, senior Navy officers said Thursday.

Navy and manufacturer Northrop Grumman [NOC] officials addressed the media one day after the MQ-4C Triton, a variant of the Air Force’s Global Hawk, took its maiden flight over California’s Mojave Desert, marking a key milestone for the program designed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance ISR) missions.

The Navy’s Triton lands following it’s first flight in Palmdale, Calif. Photo by Northrop Grumman.

The two Tritons built so far will be flying about every seven to 10 days over the next several months in Palmdale, Calif., before transitioning later this year to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., said Mike Mackey, Northrop Grumman’s deputy program manager for unmanned aerial systems.

There are eight missions planned to expand the test envelop in the development of the aircraft and “as we go through that we’ll continue to look at several other parameters,” Mackey said. He said Northrop Grumman will begin integrating Triton’s sensor suite late this year or early next year for testing at Patuxent.

Rear Adm. Sean Buck, the Navy’s commander for patrol and reconnaissance, said the Navy’s goal is to start fielding “orbits” of Triton’s the Middle East in 2016–about one year ahead of the initial operational capability timeframe.

An orbit refers to a maximum of four aircraft yet varies depending on mission and coverage requirements, he said. Tritons will be subsequently deployed to the Asia-Pacific region and then the Mediterranean. They will also be stationed on the eastern and western coasts of the United States, he said.

The first flight test came later than planned as the Navy and Northrop Grumman worked through some technical problems in adapting the aircraft to suit the Navy’s needs, which includes collaborating with the P-8 Poseidon manned maritime aircraft that are in the early stages of production.

The Navy in April announced it was pushing low-rate initial-production (LRIP) back from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2015. Capt. Jim Hoke, the Navy’s Triton program manager, said that delay allowed time to work through the technical problems but was also required because of budget constraints.

“One of the things that we were focused on as a team was to ensure that the first flight was not just a flight to go out there and take pictures,” he said. “It was the formal entry into flight tests.”

He said the program expects to award a contract to Northrop Grumman for LRIP in 2015.

During the test, the Triton flew for 80 minutes and reached an altitude of 20,000 feet. The Navy plans to eventually buy 68 of the aircraft. They are geared to fly for more than 24 hours at altitudes reaching 60,000 feet.