The unmanned aircraft system (UAS) commonly known as the Predator B or MQ-9 Reaper is a multi-mission platform that is capable of more than those monikers suggest, says manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI). In fact, with the aircraft’s latest iteration, the U.S. company hopes to retire those names.
“We called our new aircraft Sky Guardian,” said Christopher Ames, GA-ASI regional vice president for Europe and NATO. “We’re trying to get away from the Predator and the Reaper and names like that because it suggests the aircraft performs only in a strike capacity.”
Indeed, the aircraft the U.S. and UK air forces have designated MQ-9 Reaper has figured in targeted strikes in various theaters and carries an assortment of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs and as of May, the GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition.
The Sky Guardian by comparison has a 13-foot longer wingspan (79 feet) than the MQ-9/Predator B, a damage tolerant composite airframe with double the service life (40,000 hours), nearly double the operational endurance (40 hours) and greater payload capacity. Features such as auto takeoff and landing, all-weather capability, airframe de-icing, lightning protection and collision avoidance system are standard, Ames said.
“We’re trying to broaden the awareness that this aircraft is multi-mission. It performs maritime surveillance, disaster and humanitarian assistance, search and rescue, maritime domain awareness to make sure that no one’s violating your exclusive economic zone, pollution detection—all of these things are capabilities of the aircraft,” Ames said. “It’s not just a killer drone.”
The Sky Guardian’s “airline configuration” avionics suite, consisting of TCAS, ADS-B and IFF transponders, protects against midair collisions with other transponder-equipped aircraft; the addition of GA-ASI’s Due Regard radar around 2020 will protect against non-transponding, non-cooperative aircraft and rounds out the “detect and avoid” capability aviation authorities believe UAS must have to routinely operate in civilian airspace and over international waters. Though it is not yet civil-certified for use in unrestricted airspace, GA-ASI says the full detect-and-avoid system, including the Due Regard radar subsystem, is already operating on a “small set” of customer aircraft.
“This Due Regard radar is a significant event because it provides access to non-segregated airspace. It also allows maritime operations,” Ames explained.
Importantly, the Sky Guardian, which GA-ASI has also called the Certifiable Predator B, was built to NATO certification requirements comparable to those for manned aircraft as defined in the STANAG 4671 standardized agreement, and it also complies with UK Defence Standard (DEFSTAN) 00-970. “It’s not only the capability to fly in civil airspace, which is a huge concern and requirement, but it’s also the fact that (nations) are immediately NATO interoperable,” Ames said. “They have the value of deriving synergies in logistics and training and talking tactics with one another. That compatibility and interoperability is a key component of high value all by itself.”
Then British Prime Minister David Cameron in October 2015 revealed his country’s plan to acquire new “Protector” aircraft to replace 11 Royal Air Force MQ-9 Reapers; the type was later identified as the Certifiable Predator B, making the UK its launch customer. The foreign military sale (FMS) comes with direct commercial sale elements between GA-ASI and its customer—the U.S. Air Force—to include airworthiness certification responsibility and contractor logistics support. The commercial sale was concluded; the FMS deal between the U.S. and UK governments was expected to close this summer.
The UK has specified 16 Protectors and expects deliveries from 2019 through 2023, with entry into service targeted for 2021. British plans call for arming the aircraft with the MBDA Brimstone missile and Raytheon UK Paveway IV precision-guided bomb.
GA-ASI (Hall 3 Stand B32) completed the first flight of the Certifiable Predator B from its Gray Butte Flight Operations Facility near Palmdale, California, on November 17 last year. In late January, the manufacturer held a two-day unveiling event for international visitors at Gray Butte and at its corporate headquarters outside of San Diego. Representatives of the UK, Italy, France, Australia, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and the U.S. participated in the event, at which the name Sky Guardian was coined.
“That went well and I think it whetted the appetite across Europe,” Ames said. “I think they are all interested because it relieves a concern that exists throughout Europe and that is congested airspace. They are going to need an aircraft that can operate in civil, non-segregated airspace; that’s why we’re pioneering the Sky Guardian for that purpose.”
Ames identified Denmark, The Netherlands and Belgium as possible new customers in Europe. Any newcomer would join existing MQ-9 operators Italy, France, Spain and the UK in the region. Meanwhile, GA-ASI also is awaiting the outcome of a legal challenge it filed last August in the high court in Düsseldorf, challenging Germany’s decision to lease armed Heron TPs from Israel Aerospace Industries.
France has taken delivery of six MQ-9 Block 1 aircraft; it plans to acquire another six improved Block 5 models in 2019. Spain plans to acquire four Block 5 aircraft by 2020. The Block 5 variant has a standard 66-foot wingspan, with increased power-generation capability, an open-system architecture to accommodate multiple payloads, and new landing gear to support an increased gross takeoff weight.
In late April, GA-ASI and GKN Aerospace Fokker officially opened a production line in Helmond in The Netherlands, to supply landing gear systems for the MQ-9/Predator B series. Capable of producing 30 to 50 systems per year, the line has already started delivering landing gear and will supply all such gear, including for the U.S. Air Force, Ames said.
Outsourcing landing-gear systems to The Netherlands demonstrates GA-ASI’s commitment to the European market, Ames said. “That’s a significant deal because it shows we’re not only talking the talk but walking the walk,” he declared. “We said we were going to include European content in this aircraft and that’s proof-positive that we are following through on our claim.”