General Atomics Plans First Trans-Atlantic Flight of Medium-Altitude, Long-Range Remotely Piloted Aircraft
The STANAG-compliant MQ-9B SkyGuardian RPA meets stringent airworthiness type restrictions of the U.K. MAA and U.S. FAA.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) in San Diego plans to make the first-ever, trans-Atlantic flight of a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), commonly referred to as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone. GA-ASI’s company-owned MQ-9B SkyGuardian RPA – designated the MQ-9 Reaper by the U.S. Air Force – is scheduled to fly from the company’s Flight Test and Training Center in Grand Forks, N.D., to Royal Air Force (RAF) Fairford in Gloucestershire, England.
The MQ-9B SkyGuardian is a certifiable, STANAG 4671-compliant version of the MQ-9 Predator B and GA-ASI’s latest evolution of multi-mission Predator B aircraft, as is the company’s MQ-9B SeaGuardian maritime surveillance variant. Its development is the result of a five-year, company-funded effort to deliver an RPA that can meet the stringent airworthiness type-certification requirements of various military and civil authorities, including the United Kingdom Military Aviation Authority (MAA) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The MQ-9B, first flown in 2001, was designed as an improvement on the MQ-1 Predator RPA which was officially retired the past March. It is used by 10 countries, including the U.S., and currently serves as a NASA testbed for developing “over-the-horizon” command-and-control capabilities in FAA-controlled airspace. It has a flight endurance of up to 27 hours.
Type certification, together with an extensively tested collision avoidance system (TCAS), will permit unrestricted operations in all classes of civil airspace. The MQ-9B also offers power provisions to enable retrofitting of an airborne Due Regard Radar (DRR) for operation in non-cooperative airspace.
As part of the trans-Atlantic flight, GA-ASI has partnered with Inmarsat , a provider of global mobile satellite communications (SATCOM) services, in London. Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband SATCOM will be used in the MQ-9B’s ground control station to communicate and control the aircraft, and in the RPA’s final configuration to provide capabilities such as automatic takeoff and landing.
In 2017, GA-ASI and the RAF marked the 10-year anniversary of RAF MQ-9 operations, which coincided with the RAF completing 100,000 flight hours with its Reaper force. The entire Reaper fleet has completed more than 2 million flight hours to date and boasts more than 300 aircraft within the NATO alliance. The RAF is acquiring MQ-9B SkyGuardian as part of its forthcoming Protector RG Mk1 program – the RAF’s designation for the MQ-9B.
The program will replace the RAF’s current MQ-9 Reaper RPAs with 20 next-generation MQ-9Bs equipped with the extended wing and fuel tanks of the ER (Extended Range) version, by the end of the decade. The ER equipment enables an increased endurance of over 40 hours.
GA-ASI’s company-owned MQ-9B SkyGuardian is scheduled to take off from Grand Forks on July 10 and land at RAF Fairford air station on July 11, where it will be on static display July 13 through 15 at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) air show. The flight and display will commemorate the RAF’s July 10th centennial celebration, RAF100.
“GA-ASI is proud to have supported the RAF over the past decade with our MQ-9 Reaper. In honor of the RAF100 celebration, and to demonstrate a new standard in RPA flight endurance, we will fly SkyGuardian across the Atlantic,” says GA-ASI CEO Linden Blue. “Given the distinguished 100-year history of the RAF, we believe that this flight is an appropriate way to celebrate the RAF’s position as a leader in innovation.”
MQ-9B has achieved several important milestones in recent months, including the first FAA-approved flight for a company-owned RPA through non-segregated civil airspace without a chase aircraft, and an endurance record of more than 48 hours of continuous flight.
William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.