The Pentagon approved full-rate production of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle multi-role unmanned aircraft on July 26. That same day, manufacturer General Atomics reported the first flight of an improved version of the aircraft that it will demonstrate to the U.S. Army later this year.
The Army introduced the Gray Eagle, an MQ-1 Predator upgrade, in 2009 as a quick-reaction capability to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Gray Eagle is fitted with the Raytheon AN/DAS-2 common sensor payload and a General Atomics Lynx II synthetic aperture radar with ground moving-target indicator. It can carry up to four Hellfire missiles.
The Army completed initial operational test and evaluation of the MQ-1C earlier this year in support of the full-rate production decision, flying it from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to support a brigade combat team at the service’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. With the 49 production aircraft approved on July 26, the service will procure a total of 152 Gray Eagles.
Separately, Raytheon said in May that it had delivered two electronic attack payloads to the Army for operational assessment on the Gray Eagle. The service is testing the jamming pod as part of its networked electronic warfare, remotely operated (Nero) system to jam enemy communications in support of ground troops. The Nero system uses the same pod as mounted on a Beechcraft C-12 Huron (King Air) under the Ceasar (communications electronic attack with surveillance and reconnaissance) program awarded in 2010.
Meanwhile, General Atomics is self-funding research and development of an Improved Gray Eagle (IGE) derivative with greater endurance, including 23 additional hours for reconaissance missions, and 50 percent more payload and fuel capacity. The “capability enhancement” model first flew on July 26 at the company’s El Mirage flight operations facility in Adelanto, Calif. The Army will fund an endurance demonstration of the aircraft later this year, a company spokesman said.
General Atomics said the IGE’s additional space and improved heavy-fuel engine “provides growth capability for an improved airworthiness design,” with the potential of incorporating protection against lightning strikes and damage tolerance features, as well as a collision avoidance system.