Amid continuing success from flight trials of its advanced MQ-9B SkyGuardian Predator B and growing signs the certified variant is lead contender for Australia’s medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned air system (UAS) requirement, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) is bullish on future prospects for the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S.-based UAS pioneer is stepping up a series of new developments of its multi-role surveillance and strike Reaper and Predator aircraft, command and control systems and maritime patrol capability, which it believes will closely match growing defense needs from Japan and Korea to Australia an New Zealand.

While many of these advanced systems are currently in flight test or early development, GA-ASI says the new hardware on show at Singapore is a bellwether of things to come. “In the early 2020s time frame we are going to be fielding some pretty exceptional capabilities. It’s just around the corner,” says Warren ‘Mango’ Ludwig, GA-ASI director of international strategic development with a focus on Australia/New Zealand and Southeast Asia.

Faced with growing competition in the region from the Chinese-developed Wing Loong series, a Reaper-look-alike family of long-endurance UAS produced by Aviation Industry Corporation of China, General Atomics is also emphasizing its pedigree. “The Singapore Airshow is an important event at which we will showcase GA-ASI’s long-term experience in unmanned systems. We have 4.9 million flight hours on our Predator series and will have almost reached the five-million-hour mark at the show,” says Ludwig.

Newest developments on show at Singapore include demonstrations of features to enable a single user to simultaneously control multiple unmanned aircraft and their missions. The eXpeditionary Command & Control (XC2) “is a ruggedized laptop-based system that takes a large majority of what’s in the ground control station,” says Ludwig. The XC2 enables a forward-deployed maintainer to use automated checklists to rapidly conduct preflight checks and, coupled with the newly developed satcom taxi and automatic takeoff and landing capability (ATLC), eliminates the need for deployed ground control stations and crews.

The aircraft was formally launched for the UK as the Protector in 2016; the Royal Air Force (RAF) is expected to take 16 of them from 2019 through 2023, with entry into service targeted for 2021. The U.S. Air Force, which designated the SkyGuardian the MQ-9B, is also interested, as are Japan and India, the latter having solicited firm interest in up to 22 of the SeaGuardian maritime patrol variant.

Prospects for the MQ-9B appear to be growing in Australia, where the UAS is in contention for the RAAF’s Air 7003 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAS requirement for up to 16 aircraft. “Although the RAAF hasn’t been through the Gate 1 review yet, we believe it is likely to go through government consideration by the middle of this year, and we are very confident the Australian government will choose an MQ-9 variant, most likely the MQ-9B,” says Ludwig. Reasons Australia is “likely to go down that path is the close relationship between the RAAF and the RAF. The RAAF’s ability to piggyback on the RAF’s military airworthiness is a very strong incentive, as is inter-operability with the U.S.,” he adds.

General Atomics is pitching the MQ-9B to New Zealand for its future air surveillance capability. “New Zealand is currently looking at whether to buy a small number of [Boeing] P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. But even if they do they know they will need a complementary capability, so we are pitching the MQ-9B as the ideal complement to the manned anti-submarine warfare [ASW] capability. And this is a conversation we have also had with the UK,” says Ludwig

Backing up its maritime ambitions GA-ASI demonstrated the ASW capabilities of a MQ-9 for the first time during U.S. Navy exercises off the California coast last October. A sonobuoy receiver, supplied by Ultra Electronics, and data processing technology, provided by General Dynamics Mission Systems-Canada, received and processed signals from sonobuoys dropped by helicopter. Track solutions were calculated and transmitted from the UAS to the ground station via data link.

“A lot of customers are looking at this capability to supplement their ASW force mix, particularly in the P-3/P-8 range, where they don’t have enough of these aircraft. They need other assets to help them with monotonous types of operations such as laying or monitoring sonobuoys, or for new ways to cue them when a target is detected,” says Ludwig. “This will make the Predator aircraft truly maritime capable, and we are targeting a community that includes Singapore, and others around Asia.