Five years after General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. introduced the MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B) all-weather unmanned aerial vehicle in 2007, the company decided that it was time to come up with a product that wasn’t merely an upgrade but one that would shake up the entire industry.

Even as the discussion on the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into civil airspace continued to veer toward “when” rather than ‘if,” the company quietly began working on MQ-9B, or Certifiable Predator B, a multi-role remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) that would have the ability to operate seamlessly in civilian airspace. In January last year, it unveiled two variants of the aircraft – MQ-9B SkyGuardian, which is designed for operations in non-segregated airspace, and SeaGuardian, its maritime version. Both have already attracted plenty of international attention as well as prospective buyers.

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Although Predator B has made a name for itself as a lethal strike RPAS, it is a multi-role aircraft that can be used for a host of non-military missions, as NASA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have already demonstrated. While MQ-9B SkyGuardian can carry out missions such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), maritime patrol, disaster relief and border surveillance, SeaGuardian is equipped to conduct surveillance and patrol missions in open-ocean and littoral environments.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian, which has been designed from the ground up as a new system, will meet international standards for flying in civilian airspace and be fully compliant with NATO’s RPAS System Airworthiness Requirements, as well as Britain’s DEFSTAN 00-970 standards. The RPAS, which completed its first test flight in November 2016, will have the United Kingdom as its launch customer, with the Royal Air Force set to acquire the weaponized variant of the system under its Protector program.

Warren Ludwig, GA-ASI Director of International Strategic Development for Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia, believes the MQ-9B sets the benchmark for RPAS sophistication and technology. In an interview with Daily News, he also explains why the company decided to go in for a clean sheet approach while developing the certifiable version of Predator B.

“The requirements for operations in non-segregated airspace drove the design of the air vehicle and Ground Control Station (GCS) which has had the side benefit in assisting in the establishment of international engineering standards and airworthiness regulations,” he says. “Without adopting this rigor, which our competitors have not replicated, we would not have been able to provide a truly certifiable design. Other advantages to our approach embrace open standard mission systems which allows for mission-to-mission re-configurability and adaptability by end users to meet sovereign payload requirements.”

MQ-9B SkyGuardian has a range of 6000nm and endurance of 40 plus hours, which is nearly twice the range and endurance of MQ-9A. In May last year, the aircraft set a company record with the longest endurance flight of any Predator-series aircraft, landing 48.2 hours after taking off with 6,065 pounds of internal fuel and flying between 25,000 and 35,000 feet for the duration of the mission. The record was previously held by Predator XP, which flew 46.1 hours in February 2015. A Grey Eagle Extended Range RPA – a Predator variant optimized for Land Force operation, recently flew for 41.9 hours.

Other improvements of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian over previous systems include lightning protection, deicing and anti-icing systems, a 40,000-hour service life, and an open system architecture including payload and flight system separation. Payload has been increased to 4850lb and the aircraft is equipped with an advanced automatic takeoff and landing system including the ability for remote operations using satellite launch and recovery.

Ludwig, a retired RAAF Air Vice-Marshal, is confident that MQ-9B SkyGuardian will stand out even in an increasingly crowded RPA market. “The MQ-9B sets the benchmark for RPAS sophistication and technology,” he says. “It is an all-weather system designed to fly in civil, crowded, non-segregated airspace providing end users 24/7/365 RPA coverage when and where other RPA’s are unable to fly due to weather or airspace restrictions. The SkyGuardian’s range/endurance, payload, interoperability for Coalition operations and ability for rapid reconfiguration of payloads positions it well ahead of its competitors.”

The SkyGuardian has a Detect and Avoid (DAA) system, which is designed and built as part of the overall certifiable design to allow it to safely fly in non-segregated airspace without burdening air traffic control resources. The system combines an air-to-air radar with ADS-B, IFF, and TCAS II to permit the aircraft to operated seamlessly in such airspace.

GA-ASI expects MQ-9B SkyGuardian to receive a Military Type Certificate in the early 2020’s. While the United Kingdom expects the RPAS to enter service in 2021, there are a range of European, NATO, Asian and Five-Eye customers interested in this system.

Ludwig is confident that MQ-9B will receive a warm welcome from militaries around the world. “GA-ASI is pursuing multiple opportunities globally, in collaboration with the U.S. government,” he says. “We anticipate the MQ-9B SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian to assume the mantle of medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) RPAS of choice for advanced militaries around the world.”

The capabilities of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian are such that Ludwig believes it will be used much more extensively for non-military missions than its predecessor – MQ-9 Reaper – has been.

“The SkyGuardian can be configured for a myriad of strike and ISR military missions spanning land, maritime and littoral environments,” he says. “However, we expect it to become well known for its unique abilities in civil operations such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). These HADR operations could include communications node for civil authorities, firefighting over watch, and cyclonic weather assessment and analysis, along with civil security roles including border security and maritime resource protection.”