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The Navy’s massive Triton drone just flew across the U.S. for the first time

The MQ-4 Triton aerial drone is shown here completing its first flight May 22, 2013, from the Northrop Grumman manufacturing facility in Palmdale, Calif. On Thursday, it reached another goal, flying across the United States for the first time. (Northrop Grumman photo by Alex Evers/Released by U.S. Navy)

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on March 8 while traveling from Malaysia to China, the U.S. military deployed a variety of aircraft and ships as part of a international effort to find the missing plane and the 239 people on board. But a Navy aircraft that could eventually play a prominent role in such searches wasn’t ready yet: The massive MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance drone is expected to be operational in 2017.

The massive drone reached a new milestone Thursday, however. At 7:53 a.m., one of the 131-foot wide aircraft landed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland following its first cross-country flight, the Navy said. The drone soared at heights of more than 50,000 feet at times; it departed from a facility in Palmdale, Calif., owned by its maker, Northrop Grumman, late Wednesday. It flew along the U.S.-Mexico border, over the Gulf of Mexico and across Florida before turning north up the Atlantic Coast.

The Triton had completed 15 test flights prior to the one landing in Maryland on Thursday. The first occurred in May 2013 from Palmdale. It’s shown Thursday in this video released by Northrop Grumman:

The drone is expected to supplement the Navy’s new P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane, performing what the service calls Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, or BAMS. Northrop Grumman says the drone, a descendant of the Air Force’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, will rely on radar, infrared sensors and advanced cameras to provide full-motion video and photographs to the military. Northrop Grumman described it here:

The Navy deployed its new P-8, a replacement for the P-3 surveillance plane, to search for missing Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean in March. Working from Australia, it flew numerous surveillance missions, but the Triton that will eventually work alongside it wasn’t ready. The P-8s were eventually called off April 30, as the search moved almost entirely underwater and the Pentagon curtailed its involvement.

Northrop Grumman said Thursday that over the next few weeks, two other Triton drones will fly to Maryland. One is owned by the Navy; the other is a demonstration aircraft owned by the defense firm.