American company General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) began flight tests of the promising unmanned aerial vehicle Protector RG Mk 1. This machine is created by order of the Royal Air Force of Great Britain and will be handed over to the customer next year.
Back in 2016, the Royal Air Force of Great Britain announced their intention to modernize the fleet of medium-altitude UAVs with a long flight duration in the future. The main contender for the future contract was the American company GA-ASI. In 2018, it provided an experienced drone of the new modification MQ-9B Sky Guardian for testing. The car as a whole suited the British, but additional requirements were put forward to finalize the project. The UAV modification for KVVS received the designation Protector RG Mk 1.
In early 2020, they announced the completion of design work and the construction of a prototype. In mid-July, before the start of testing the prototype, KVVS announced the signing of a contract for the supply of serial equipment. In accordance with the document, by 2024 GA-ASI will deliver three drones, the same number of ground command posts and a set of other means. There is also an option for 13 UAVs and 4 control points.
The promising Protector RG Mk 1 vehicles in the foreseeable future will have to complement the MQ-9A Reaper products available at the KVVS. The emergence of three such complexes will provide a significant renewal and strengthening of the cash group, and the implementation of the option in the future will make it possible to decommission the obsolete equipment.
At the end of September, GA-ASI announced its latest achievements and plans for the future. So, on September 25, the first flight of the Protector drone for the KVVS took place. The vehicle with the internal designation UK1 has confirmed its high performance characteristics and now it has to undergo new tests.
The UAV Protector RG Mk 1 UK1 is actually the fourth sample of the MQ-9B type. The three previous machines belong to the development company and are intended for testing or demonstration of technology to potential customers. Thus, the UK1 product is the first representative of its project, built for a specific customer as part of an order.
In the coming months, GA-ASI will conduct preliminary factory tests of the drone. Next year, the car will be handed over to the UK Department of Defense, but after that it will remain in the United States. Under the terms of the existing agreements, in 2021 the British Air Force and Air Force will begin joint testing of equipment. It is expected that, based on their results, the KVVS will take a ready-made drone into operation, and the American army will sign the first contract for such equipment.
Joint trials will last until 2023, after which the Protector UK1 will go into service. In 2023-24. it will be followed by two other cars. Probably, by this time the fate of the option will be decided – and at the same time the future of the existing MQ-9A UAV fleet. At the same time, it is argued that even the first batch of equipment will provide a sharp increase in the combat and operational capabilities of the unmanned air force group. It has already been announced that the 31st KVVS squadron will become the operator of the new technology, regardless of its number.
Benefits of modernization
The Protector RG Mk 1 / MQ-9B is a deeply modernized version of the basic MQ-9A with a number of important advantages. The airframe and the main on-board systems underwent refinement, due to which an increase in flight technical and operational characteristics was obtained, as well as the permissible conditions of use and the range of tasks to be solved were expanded.
The “Protector” glider received a new wing with a span of 24 m and winglets – instead of the 20-meter one of the MQ-9A. This led to an increase in lift, and also increased the maximum flight duration to 40 hours. During the tests of the MQ-9B, an experiment was carried out – an experimental vehicle without a special load remained in the air for two days.
The upgraded glider received an anti-icing system and lightning protection equipment. As a result, the UAV has become more resistant to difficult weather conditions, which in a number of situations allows flight and / or simplifies operation.
Avionics have been modernized. The main innovation is the collision avoidance system. Its presence reduces restrictions and allows the use of UAVs in airspace with active traffic, incl. civil. Accordingly, it simplifies the organization and performance of flights when performing a variety of tasks. Improved on-board flight control devices. In addition, the ground control post underwent modernization.
MQ-9B retained the ability to carry various payloads in the form of surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. There is a gyro-stabilized platform with optoelectronic devices; some modifications can carry compact radars. At the same time, it is reported about the development of new payload modules with improved characteristics. Accordingly, the modernized UAV will be able to solve old tasks with greater efficiency.
The special requirements of the KVVS were mainly reflected in the range of weapons. The Protector RG Mk 1 is to carry the MBDA Brimstone guided air-to-ground missiles and the Paveway IV guided bombs, the standard weapons used by British combat aircraft. The basic modification of the MQ-9B retains the nomenclature of its predecessor based on AGM-114 missiles and Paveway bombs.
Present and future
At the moment, the British fleet of heavy UAVs MQ-9A Reaper consists of only 9 machines, and also includes several control points and various support equipment. In 2023-24. three new machines will be put into operation, which will lead to quantitative and qualitative growth. Conversion of the option into a firm contract is highly likely. Such measures will allow in the future to replace obsolete drones, as well as to almost double the size of the group.
The UK Department of Defense highly appreciates the prospects for both the upgraded drone and the rearmament unit. During the signing of the supply contract, it was noted that the new UAVs will be able to serve and effectively perform their tasks for the next several decades. “Protectors” will increase the main combat capabilities of the KVVS, since they will be able to stay in the air for many hours and conduct surveillance, attack or provide command and control of troops.
For GA-ASI, the UK contract is of great importance, but it is not the only one of its kind. So, MQ-9B interested the armed forces of Australia and Belgium. Deliveries of new equipment to these countries will begin in the foreseeable future. Based on the results of the tests begun, the US Air Force may become the next customer of the drone. Interest from other countries is possible. So far, contracts and options do not differ in large volumes, but in the future a portfolio of orders for dozens of units of equipment is expected.
Thus, one of the main projects of the General Atomics company is entering a new stage, which promises serious profits. In the coming years, after the completion of the necessary tests, the deeply modernized UAV will reach the series and operation in the troops. Formally, the UK will be the first operator of the MQ-9B / Protector RG Mk 1, followed by more countries.