The Navy’s MQ-4C Triton program has reached the half-way point of flight testing designed to meet key requirements, and the first two of the unmanned aerial vehicles are due to arrive at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., in late spring.

The Navy's MQ-4C Tritons are progressing on key test points. Photo: Northrop Grumman.
The Navy’s MQ-4C Tritons are progressing on key test points. Photo: Northrop Grumman.

Prime contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC] along with the Navy conducted the ninth flight of a Triton in December in Palmdale, Calif., as the MC-4C continues to expand its flight envelope, including reaching an altitude of 50,000 feet and a duration exceeding nine hours.

The MQ-4C also engaged in doublets, a maneuver to test its ability to recover from turbulence.

The first Triton flight took place in May. The Navy plans to buy 68 of the aircraft, which are based on the Air Force’s Global Hawk, to carry out maritime surveillance missions. The aircraft can fly at about 60,000 feet for around 24 hours.

Once the aircraft arrive at Patuxent River, there will be greater focus of testing of the sensor payload package the Tritons will carry for the intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions.

A Northrop Grumman spokesman said the Palmdale testing could conclude by the end of February, depending on factors such as weather.

“Completion of envelope expansion will allow the test team to prepare for installation and further testing of Triton’s surveillance sensors,” Mike Mackey, Northrop Grumman’s Triton program director, said in a company release Monday.

The Navy plans to operate the Tritons in conjunction with the new manned P-8 Poseidon aircraft built by Boeing [BA] for maritime patrol. The Tritons are being equipped with software to allow for communications with the P-8.

The first test in May came later than planned as the Navy and Northrop Grumman worked through some technical problems associated with adapting the aircraft for a maritime environment and on the teaming with the P-8s, which are also in the early stages of production.

Low-rate initial production of the Triton planned for fiscal 2014 was pushed into 2015 to work through some of the challenges, and because of budget constraints, the Navy has previously said.

The Navy plans to first deploy “orbits” of Tritons to the Middle East in 2016, about one year ahead of the initial operational capability timeframe. An orbit consist of about four of the drones, depending on mission requirements.

Tritons will be subsequently deployed to the Asia-Pacific region and then the Mediterranean. They are also slated for stationing on the eastern and western U.S. coasts.