GA-ASI extends RPA leadership

Line of Defence Magazine - Spring 2019

GA-ASI Predator-A
More than 320 Predator As have been delivered. Image: GA-ASI.

MQ-9B edges closer to RAF delivery, Predator A turns 25, and GA-ASI demonstrates Multi-Mission Control and Metis RPA capabilities that offer operator savings for the USAF.

UK Test and Evaluation Contract signed

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) has signed a Direct Commercial Sale (DCS) contract with the UK Ministry of Defence to complete the test and evaluation activities required to certify the Protector RG Mk1 Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) system to fly in civil airspace.

The DCS contract also funds additional Protector programme elements, including X-band SATCOM system verification, training material development and logistics planning.

“This completes another important milestone as we work towards the delivery of Protector to the Royal Air Force (RAF),” said Linden Blue, GA-ASI’s CEO. “We have completed more than 100 qualification test flights using our two company-owned SkyGuardian RPA.”

MQ-9B SkyGuardian is the baseline RPA that will become the Protector RG Mk1 once delivered to the RAF. Delivery is expected in the early 2020s and RAF operators will continue to support evaluation activity for Protector using the two SkyGuardian test aircraft and the Protector cockpit.

“The testing and evaluation phase of the Protector programme is an important element that ensures the safe delivery of this next generation capability,” said RAF Group Captain Lyndon Jones, Protector RG Mk1 Programme Director. “The Royal Air Force will continue its strong relationship with GA-ASI to ensure leading edge and innovative technology, such as Detect and Avoid (DAA), is integrated into Protector.”

The GA-ASI-developed DAA system consists of a Due Regard air-to-air Radar and processor, integrated with Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS II), and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). Protector RG Mk1 is also being built for all-weather performance with lightning protection, damage tolerance, and a de-icing system.

Predator A turns 25

GA-ASI marked the 25th anniversary of its Predator A unmanned aircraft in July. Predator A completed its first flight in July 1994 and made its operational debut in 1995. 

More than 320 Predator As have been delivered to customers in support of global security throughout the world, and the product line remained in production until 2011. Predator As have flown close to 141,000 missions and over two million total flight hours. More than 90 percent of those hours were flown supporting combat missions.

“With innovation in mind, we have always looked for ways to challenge the industry standard,” said Linden Blue. “Our Predator-series has evolved over the past 25 years into MQ-9 and Gray Eagle (MQ-1C), which are the most combat-proven RPA in the world.”

GA-ASI won its first major program award for the Predator A in 1994 from the U.S. Joint Program Office, which was later transferred to the U.S. Air Force. In addition to the U.S., the Predator A was purchased by the Italian Ministry of Defence for the Italian Air Force, and later in a modernised version known as the Predator XP for the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Predator A established GA-ASI’s legacy of delivering long-endurance, multi-mission RPA with integrated sensors and data link systems for persistent situational awareness and rapid strike capabilities. The Predator series continues to excel in combat environments and in performing civilian surveillance missions.

“We’re proud of our long and distinguished history of supporting the warfighter,” said David R. Alexander, president, GA-ASI. “From Predator A, to Predator B, Gray Eagle, Avenger®, and their various mission configurations, our aircraft and payload systems continue to address changing mission requirements for U.S. and Allied militaries and civilian users.”

Over its 25 year history, the Predator series fleets have flown close to six million flight hours. 

MMC and Metis capabilities demonstrated

On 28 August, GA-ASI demonstrated its Multi-Mission Control (MMC) and Metis capabilities during a live flight using company-owned MQ-9 Block 1 and MQ-9 Block 5 Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). 

MMC enables a single pilot to control multiple MQ-9s for transit operations and routine Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions using a streamlined graphical user interface and lightweight hand controller. Metis integrates joint force ISR tasking requirements with the MMC to dynamically task MQ-9 assets, as well as report task status and share ISR information using a social media-like interface.

“These capabilities have the potential to dramatically increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the U.S. Air Force’s MQ-9 enterprise by relieving aircrew manning requirements during certain flight profiles,” said David R. Alexander, president of GA-ASI. “MMC and Metis, when combined with SATCOM Launch and Recovery and our Advanced Cockpit, will reduce aircrew manning by 50 percent.”

As with GA-ASI’s Advanced Cockpit, these capabilities employ an open architecture design that integrates Artificial Intelligence-based functions such as automatic ISR data processing and natural language processing for automated communications. This open approach enables rapid integration that can be applied to other capabilities like those using the Open Mission System (OMS) standard, and other aircraft like the MQ-1C Gray Eagle.

MMC marks an evolution in the way operators control RPA. Using a single pilot to operate multiple aircraft enables more efficient use of operators when conducting current MQ-9 operations by increasing loiter time for highly tasked MQ-9 crew force or expanding missions provided in support of the Combatant Commander.

Metis enhances communications between supported units, aircrew, and intelligence cells, making the ISR lifecycle faster and more efficient.

The MMC and Metis flights demonstrated a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 7 capability. In a case when one MMC aircraft is dynamically tasked to perform a strike mission or a more dynamic ISR mission, the system allows seamless handoff of the aircraft to a dedicated Ground Control Station where the mission execution crew can prosecute the new tasking. Both MMC and Metis can be used across military forces and for non-defence applications.The demonstration flights were performed with the cooperation of the U.S. FAA, and under the Certificate of Waiver or Authorization granted to GA-ASI’s Flight Test & Training Center (FTTC) in North Dakota, USA.