The General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE) Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) made history as it landed at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, UK, on Juy 11 to become the first MALE RPA to successfully complete a transatlantic flight. The GA-ASI-owned MQ-9B SkyGuardian took off from Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, US on July 10 at 12:48pm CDT and then covered 3,760 nautical miles in 24 hours 2 minutes.
The MQ-9B has been selected by the RAF as the Protector RG1, and hours before the aircraft’s arrived in the UK, Chief of Air Staff, ACM Sir Stephen Hillier announced that the first RAF unit to operate the Protector will be No 31 Squadron ‘Goldstars’, which currently flies the Panavia Tornado. The Protector program is aimed to give the UK a capability for deep and persistent armed surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.
The flight to Fairford achieved a number of firsts, including the first mission entirely controlled by satellite communications in British airspace. The aircraft was controlled by pilots sitting in North Dakota as the aircraft flew over Canada, across the Atlantic and around southern Ireland before reaching the UK mainland in west Wales.
MQ-9B is the next generation of GA-ASI’s multi-mission Predator B fleet. GA-ASI named its baseline MQ-9B aircraft SkyGuardian, and the maritime surveillance variant SeaGuardian. MQ-9B is a ‘type-certifiable’ (STANAG 4671-compliant) version of the MQ-9 Predator B. Its development is the result of a five-year, company-funded effort to deliver a RPA that can meet the stringent airworthiness type-certification requirements of various military and civil authorities, including the UK Military Airworthiness Authority (MAA) and the US FAA.
AVM Julian Young, Chief of Materiel (Air) at the Defence Equipment and Support agency said: ‘Protector features world-beating characteristics that we are bringing into service as the lead customer and this aircraft will be a game-changer like none other.’
However, the UK program has faced recent criticism. A recent report by the overseeing Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) said: ‘…the IPA determined that the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) Protector UAS cannot be delivered on schedule or on budget, rating it as Red (successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable).’ The programme has now been re-baselined and further details are expected shortly.