The Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned air system has made its first flight.
During its 1h 20m debut flight from Northrop's Palmdale, California facility, the aircraft reached 20,000ft (7,000m) altitude.
“Our goal is to mature the Triton UAS before supporting the navy’s maritime [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] mission,” says Capt Jim Hoke, programme manager for Triton . “The data we collect the next few years is essential to certify the system for operational use.”
The MQ-4C is a heavily modified version of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, replacing the original surveillance equipment with an electronically-scanned maritime radar, among other changes.
The USN has ordered 68 of the aircraft for long-duration maritime surveillance, with a formal operational capability beginning in 2016.
MQ-4 has been ordered by the USN as a partial replacement for the aging Lockheed P-3C, which first flew in 1959. The MQ-4s are meant to work in concert with Boeing 737-derived P-8 Poseidon aircraft, several of which have been delivered to the US and Indian navies.
Australia has recently announced its intent to request detailed information from Nothrop in advance of a sale, but no aircraft have been formally ordered. Several other nations, including Canada, are thought to be considering the aircraft.
While Triton is ascendant, its progenitor the Global Hawk is facing difficulties. The US Air Force has plans to retire many of its new Block 30 models, which were built to replace the Lockheed U-2, due to high cost and underperformance. Germany recently cancelled planned orders for four Euro JHawk derivatives of the aircraft, citing certification problems.