The Navy’s MQ-4C Triton, a variant of the Air Force’s Global Hawk, took its maiden flight on Wednesday, the first of a series of tests to validate the aircraft designed for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance before it heads into production.

The unmanned Triton took off in Palmdale, Calif., flew for 80 minutes and reached an altitude of 20,000 feet. The Navy developed the Triton under the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program and plans to eventually build 68 of the land-based aircraft for flying high-altitude, long-endurance missions.

The Navy’s Triton makes it’s maiden flight. Photo by Northrop Grumman.

“This flight represents a significant milestone for the Triton team,” said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). “The work they have done and will continue to do is critical to the future of naval aviation, particularly to our maritime patrol and reconnaissance community.”

The Triton program had been delayed to overcome some technical problems with the aircraft mission management software and to resolve an issue with its V-shaped tail known as a ruddervator. The Triton is an adaptation of the Global Hawk for operating in a maritime environment.

The Navy said in April it needed to delay the low-rate initial-production (LRIP) phase from 2014 to at least 2015 because of the technical problems. Northrop Grumman [NOC] is the prime contractor for Triton.

The Navy envisions the Triton as a key part of the maritime patrol missions in the future and the aircraft is expected to work in conjunction with the manned P-8 Poseidon, a program also in the early stages of production. The Triton is designed to fly for more than 24 hours at altitudes reaching 60,000 feet.

“When operational, the MQ-4C will complement our manned P-8 because it can fly for long periods, transmit its information in real-time to units in the air and on ground, as well as use less resources than previous surveillance aircraft,” Rear Adm. Sean Buck, the Navy’s commander for patrol and reconnaissance, said. “Triton will bring an unprecedented ISR capability to the warfighter.”

The flight tests are expected to continue for the next several months at the Palmdale site before the aircraft head to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., in the fall, NAVAIR said. The Navy has built or is in the process of building five Tritons with Northrop Grumman under the systems development and demonstration (SDD) phase.

In the budget request for fiscal 2014, the Navy added $200 million to the research and development account for Triton and subtracted about $425 million that would have gone toward production. The Navy now plans to spend $375 million on R&D in 2014 and $52 million on production, according to the budget documents.