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On 25 September, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) completed the first flight of the PROTECTOR RG Mk1 remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS), the fourth MQ-9B SkyGuardian air vehicle: the first three MQ-9Bs are company-owned assets supporting the certification qualification programme.

The first PROTECTOR – UK1 – will be used to support system testing as part of a combined UK MoD, USAF and GA-ASI test team. On completion of this initial testing, UK1 will be delivered to the MoD in summer 2021, but will remain in the USA to complete the RAF’s test and evaluation programme.

It was exciting to see the first flight of MQ-9B in the PROTECTOR configuration,” said GA-ASI President, David R Alexander. “The Royal Air Force has been a great partner for GA-ASI for more than a decade […] we look forward to delivering their PROTECTOR fleet and gaining more MQ-9B SkyGuardian customers in NATO and around the globe.”

MQ-9B is GA-ASI’s most advanced RPAS, available as the SkyGuardian, the maritime SeaGuardian (fitted with a multimode 360° field-of-regard maritime patrol radar and optional sonobuoy capability) or, as with the PROTECTOR, in a customer-specified configuration. The first MQ-9B customer delivery will be to the UK, but the RPAS has also been selected by Belgium and Australia, with significant interest from customers throughout the world.

PROTECTOR will be deployed in wide-ranging Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations, where its ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours will offer a vastly improved ISTAR capability. Given that it is designed to fly in non-segregated, civil airspace, the PROTECTOR RPAS will be able to respond rapidly and offer flexibility, delivering many types of military or civil authority support missions, including search and rescue,” said Group Captain Shaun Gee, the RAF’s Director Air ISTAR Programmes.

MQ-9B development began in 2014 as a company-funded programme to deliver an RPAS to meet NATO’s stringent airworthiness type-certification standard (STANAG 4671). STANAG certification will enable SkyGuardian, SeaGuardian and other MQ-9B variants to operate in civil airspace and better perform border patrol, fire detection and firefighting support, maritime patrol, and resource monitoring missions. MQ-9B is provisioned for the GA-ASI-developed Detect and Avoid System (DAAS) to enhance safety of operations in civil and military airspace and is built for adverse-weather performance with lightning protection, a damage tolerant airframe, and a de-icing system.

The RAF’s PROTECTOR RPAS, based on SkyGuardian, has achieved its maiden flight. (Photo: GA-ASI)

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