General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) has rolled out and flown the first production-representative MQ-9B SkyGuardian unmanned combat air system (UCAV).
By surpassing this milestone, the company is closer to delivering the first MQ-9B Protector RG1 to the Royal Air Force (RAF) – the launch customer for the platform.
This aircraft – dubbed BC03 by GA-ASI – flew for the first time from its Flight Operations Facility in El Mirage, Georgia, on March 30. It will now undergo further ground and flight-testing to collect airworthiness certification data, starting with flight loads and aircraft performance tests. The results of which will inform the type certification exposition needed for the type to achieve military type certification as the Protector platform.
Linden Blue, CEO of GA-ASI, said: “With [the] first flight of the production-representative aircraft, we remain on schedule for delivering [the] MQ-9B Protector to the RAF… Protector [revolutionises] the long-endurance [remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA)] market by providing true all-weather capability, and NATO-standard type certification to enable flexible operations in civil airspace.”
The MQ-9B has been designed to operate in day or night, all-weather conditions, featuring lightning protection, damage tolerance and de-icing systems. It is also integrated with a GA-ASI-developed Detect and Avoid System (DAS), enabling the MQ-9B to operate safely in contested and civil airspace, having the capability to detect and evade other aircraft.
According to David R Alexander, president of GA-ASI. BC03 will be followed by BC04 (otherwise known as UK1), which will be the first production aircraft to be delivered to the RAF. He said: “Production has already begun on BC04 and prior to delivery, it will be used for combined system [tests] and weapons testing.”
Gp Capt Shaun Gee, the RAF’s Protector RG1 programme director, stated that the service is tracking all important developments with its future Protector aircraft. “The military type certificate is a particularly important milestone because it’s a foundational step towards the Protector RPA being approved to fly in unsegregated airspace," he added.
In addition to being operated by the RAF, the MQ-9B will be employed by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) after it was selected by the country in late November last year under its Project Air 7003 programme. It will also be operated by the Belgian armed forces.
The RAF has placed an initial order for 16 aircraft, which will be operated by No 31 Squadron ‘Goldstars’ from RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. The unit will be re-activated to operate the Protector in 2024.