One of Northrop Grumman's new war/spy gadgets, the Triton unmanned aerial vehicle, just got closer to joining the US Navy's reconnaissance fleet. After almost two years since the defense tech company announced the aircraft, the Triton has finally completed its initial test flight program and has now been cleared to fly at various altitudes, speeds and weights. The tests, which kicked off in May 2013, spanned 13 flights (including long-endurance ones) with a total of 81 hours flown at altitudes up to 59,950 feet. To put that in perspective, commercial airplanes usually fly at around 35,000 feet in the air.
While the company and the Navy successfully got through this phase, they still have to tackle more tests before the Triton goes into service sometime in 2017. They're currently preparing to equip two Tritons with sensor systems designed to take high-res images, detect targets with radar and provide a means of communication between military units over long distances. These UAVs will take to the air this June or July to determine whether the sensors work as intended. In the future, the Navy plans to build 68 Tritons specifically to work with manned P-8 Poseidon patrol planes. If the latter sounds familiar, it's because a deployed P-8 unit is currently involved in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. When the Triton's ready for primetime, it could considerably extend the P-8's search range, making it better equipped to handle similar missions.