General Atomics’s work on building the MQ-9B remotely piloted aircraft to NATO airworthiness requirements helps pave the way toward broader introduction of unmanned aircraft into civilian airspace, company executives said. The manufacturer plans to start delivering the “Protector” variant to the UK Royal Air Force by late next year; it expects the service will certify the variant to manned aircraft standards by 2021-2022, allowing the Protector to fly over populated areas.
Civil certification of the MQ-9B aircraft on which the Protector is based—General Atomics calls it the Sky Guardian—could follow from the U.S Federal Aviation Administration and other authorities in 2024-2025, the company believes. It would then be easier not only to move the aircraft between military bases, for example, but also to use it for civilian applications such as disaster response and monitoring.
The campaign to certify the UK Protector to a manned aircraft equivalent “is important as can be,” said David Alexander, president of the aircraft systems business unit of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. “They’re going to come out with a military flight release but they’re going through the same data that will take us to that next step,” he added during a roundtable meeting with reporters August 16 at the company’s headquarters in Poway, California.
General Atomics initiated the effort to build a “certifiable” MQ-9 Predator B as an internally funded development program in 2012. The UK Royal Air Force signed on as launch customer of the Protector variant with UK-specific componentry, requiring that it be built to NATO’s STANAG 4671 standard, titled “UAV Systems Airworthiness Requirements.” Published in 2009, the standard established airworthiness requirements for military fixed-wing unmanned aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of up to 20,000 kg (44,092 pounds). It uses as guidance the U.S. Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) for normal, utility, acrobatic and commuter airplanes—Part 23.
STANAG 4671 does not dictate an unmanned aircraft “detect and avoid” solution, describing that as “primarily an operational issue.” But it would treat any such system as installed equipment subject to its requirements. The Sky Guardian will come with a detect-and-avoid suite combining TCAS and ADS-B transponders to detect nearby transponder-equipped aircraft and General Atomics “due regard” radar to protect against non-transponding aircraft.
General Atomics has created an office of airworthiness, which an executive described as an independent group of experts—many of them from manned aviation backgrounds—to guide the certification effort. It is also hiring certification/verification engineers to compare documentation and test results against the NATO standard as a type of internal audit.
“That UK military type certificate based on STANAG 4671 gives you a level of airworthiness rigor that is close to FAR 23 and is at least in part derived from that,” observed General Atomics Aeronautical Systems CEO Linden Blue during the roundtable meeting—the first such media event the company has held in years. “The UK military flight release based on STANAG should be very relevant and, at least in conversations, has already become very relevant for the FAA’s future thinking on what kind of airworthiness certification they will require for civil airspace operations here.”
During the two-day media event, General Atomics flew reporters to its flight operations facility at Gray Butte Field Airport, 30 miles west of Victorville, California, to see the first Protector/Sky Guardian prototype complete a 275-mile flight from Laguna Army Airfield at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona. According to General Atomics personnel there, the prototype departed the Army airfield into restricted airspace; flew northwest in Class A airspace above 18,000 feet msl under FAA certificate of authorization; entered the restricted airspace of Edwards Air Force Base, California; then flew a short corridor of several miles requiring accompaniment by a chase aircraft to Gray Butte.
Powered by a Honeywell TPE331-10YGD turboprop engine, the YBC01 prototype, FAA-registered as N190TC, is the first of four aircraft that will fly a 600-hour flight-test campaign. General Atomics completed the first flight of the prototype on Nov. 17, 2016, and flew the aircraft for 48.2 hours from May 16-18. Reporters also saw the YBC02 second prototype being assembled during a tour of the General Atomics manufacturing facility in Poway, northeast of San Diego. Plans call for the second aircraft to begin flight-testing in February.
The test regime calls for another 200 hours of flight testing specific to the UK Protector program, which will include weapons testing at Yuma Proving Ground and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California. The Protector adds UK-specific equipment to the baseline Sky Guardian, including X-band Skynet and Inmarsat backup satellite communications, data link encryption, identification friend or foe (IFF) Modes 4 and 5 transponder and capability to deploy the MBDA Brimstone missile and Raytheon UK Paveway IV precision-guided bomb.
The UK has specified 16 Protectors and expects deliveries from 2019 through 2023, with entry into service targeted for 2021. In preparation, General Atomics is building a new production line at Poway, which it expects to begin operating in 2018.