General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) has demonstrated satellite-controlled takeoffs and landings of its MQ-9B SkyGuardian UAV for the first time. The MQ-9B, which GA-ASI previously called the Certifiable Predator B (CPB), is a further development of the Reaper UAV that is being acquired by the UK Royal Air Force, which has assigned its own name: the Protector. GA-ASI is also marketing the SkyGuardian and its maritime surveillance equivalent, the SeaGuardian, to other nations.
The demonstrations took place last month, when a company-owned MQ-9B flew out of Laguna Army Airfield near Yuma, Arizona, while being controlled by aircrew from the mission control ground station located about 300 miles away at GA-ASI’s Gray Butte airfield near Palmdale, California. “Using only a satcom datalink, the team successfully taxied the aircraft and initiated six auto takeoff and landing events,” GA-ASI said. The MQ-9B has been designed from the outset for automatic takeoff and landing capability (ATLC), whereas the MQ-9A Reaper now in service with the U.S. and other air forces is manually controlled for launch and recovery.
GA-ASI says that by eliminating the launch and receiver element, this latest innovation “will drastically reduce airlift requirements when the [UAV] is forward deployed.” The company added that the overall operating cost of the UAV would be reduced. “It also enables rapid self-deployment of aircraft to any global runway with a GPS-surveyed file,” the company continued.
A former MQ-9 Reaper squadron commander reacted with caution. “This is quite a big step,” he told AIN, noting that the ATLC might still need to be calibrated at the forward location. The absence of any qualified aircrew there would also preclude a recovery there, if the ATLC failed, he added.