General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) has flown the company-owned prototype MQ-9B SkyGuardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) in British and Dutch airspace, during a series of recent trials that demonstrated the ability of this variant to operate in normal controlled airspace. The flight tests are also intended to advance the development program that will eventually allow it to fly in entirely non-segregated airspace.
The SkyGuardian forms the basis of a UK-specific variant, the Protector RG.Mk 1, and is designed to meet or exceed all aviation certification standards. The Royal Air Force’s aircraft will have significantly greater endurance than the MQ-9A Reaper, and will be able to conduct missions of up to 40 hours. UK weapons will be integrated, and the type has seven weapons stations allowing it to carry a total of 21 Brimstone missiles.
During the trials the aircraft initially operated from the RAF Waddington base in England, which is the home of the Royal Air Force’s ISR/ISTAR force. However, it was controlled from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, to where the aircraft moved on 12 September to allow it to participate in Exercise Joint Warrior.
While in the UK, pilots from GA-ASI operated the aircraft. The SkyGuardian also spent two days operating between Waddington and Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. The Royal Netherlands Air Force has ordered four of the earlier MQ-9A Reaper to be operated by 306 Squadron from later this year.
Temporary permission for the flights was granted by the UK Civil Aviation Authority, using temporary danger areas designated by Notam. The SkyGuardian operated in airspace where it received a service from air traffic controllers, with the temporary airspace changes ensuring that other aircraft were excluded from the area unless they and SkyGuardian could sense and avoid each other. These initial flights in controlled airspace used standard aircraft co-ordination technology to maintain safe separation, but the type will later use detect and avoid radar to allow operation in unsegregated airspace. This will permit the aircraft to deliver an array of military missions and support to civil authorities, including search and rescue, and disaster relief.
During its UK deployment, the aircraft was operated in SeaGuardian configuration, carrying a belly-mounted 360-degree maritime search radar, allowing it to demonstrate the type’s formidable maritime surveillance capabilities.
Flight-testing of the first production aircraft for the UK is underway in the U.S., and certification evidence trials will be undertaken in 2022-2023, while the first RAF crews will be trained in the U.S. in 2022. The Protector RG.Mk 1 is scheduled to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2024, with one 24/7 operational task line, and a UK-based training line. Full Operational Capability (FOC) will follow in 2026, with the ability to sustain three 24/7 operational task lines, and the UK-based training line.
The planned RAF Protector force consists of two operational squadrons, and Waddington will also host an international training facility on a new campus. This will enable crews from the RAF and international partners to conduct a significant amount of their training in a secure environment. This will be linked with the Defence Collective Training environment under the UK Gladiator program. The force will comprise 16 air vehicles, seven ground control stations, five synthetic training systems, and some 501 aircrew, engineers, analysts and support trades.