MQ-9B SkyGuardian: The next generation of remotely piloted aircraft

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©General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) – SkyGuardian

The MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) possesses a number of unique advantages not found in manned platforms: they have very long endurance they’re built to be certified to fly in civil airspace, are very affordable, have a very small footprint, can operate and transition between low and high altitude (500 to 40,000 feet), and can be employed in high-risk environments without the concern for loss of the crew.

These attributes, which have been exploited in over-land and largely permissible environments, are now being tested for cross-environment missions, including maritime surveillance, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and broad-spectrum Electronic Warfare (EW) roles, including in high-threat scenarios. Developments that network the RPA with other land, aerospace and maritime assets are enabling this role expansion.

Operational roles for RPA are in transition in conjunction with changes to U.S. and Allied warfighting priorities. While support to land forces will remain a core role for these systems, employment-focused on high-end, including in the maritime environment, are shaping current development priorities for GA-ASI and its customers.

The GA-ASI MQ-9 Medium-altitude Long-endurance (MALE) series of RPA had their genesis in the 1990s, with an early version of the “Predator” RPA with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability. Predator operated over Bosnia in 1995, with more capable, armed versions commencing operations in the Middle East theatre in 2001. The more advanced USAF MQ-9A “Reaper” RPA variants followed, along with the U.S. Army’s MQ-1C “Gray Eagle” Unmanned Aircraft System. Today the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain operate the MQ-9 system with great success. The Netherlands have also procured the MQ-9 with deliveries to commence in near term.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has effectively employed MQ-9 platforms for both overland and maritime surveillance activities since 2005. In the past two years, GA-ASI has conducted maritime and civil surveillance demonstrations in Japan and Europe, with further trials planned for later in 2020.

With the focus of U.S. and Allied forces now turning to multi-domain, high-end warfare in the great power competition, the traditional roles for MQ-9 series RPA are transitioning to multi-role, multi-environment and multi-domain applications, including maritime warfare. With this refocus comes an increased requirement for networking and synergies with other tactical and operational platforms. System testing of these new capabilities is ongoing in operational environments at various threat levels.

From a coalition perspective, the MQ-9B is well suited to be networked and interoperable during coalition operations due to its open system architecture and common communications protocols.

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©General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) – SkyGuardian

New, Innovative Capabilities

Capability development and the integration of systems for MQ-9 series platforms is proceeding at an unprecedented pace within GA-ASI to meet U.S. and Allied requirements. The most prominent developments relate to ASW, EW, IR and EW Self-Protection systems, and advanced networking solutions with flight trials on these configurations planned in 2020. Meanwhile, developments to the baseline MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian, including a Detect and Avoid System (DAAS) to aid in the seamless operations in all classes of airspace, Portable Pre/Post-Flight Equipment (P3E) to enable expeditionary operations, and a range of automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications for operations and processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED), are either operational or nearing completion.

The MQ-9B is ideally suited to operate from a range of airfields throughout the world including fields as short as 4,000 feet by using an Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability (ATLC). This system enhances the MQ-9B’s versatility and employment options due to its small footprint and it only requires a handful of essential personnel for support. The capability to auto-land at un-surveyed airfields is also in development by GA-ASI (recently demonstrated by the U.S. Air Force). With such capabilities, the MQ-9B could operate more flexibly and rapidly reposition between deployed operating sites, when compared to other strategic Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare (ISREW) and Strike assets. With expanding multi-role capability options, the MQ-9B offers impressive future employment potential.

The acquisition of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian enables a system of Multi-Domain Operations in direct support of Land, Maritime Surveillance, Anti-Submarine Warfare, Strike, EW roles, and expeditionary roles. The MQ-9B’s ability to network with other Air, Sea, Land and Space systems creates an exceptional opportunity to further expand force employment options.

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©General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) – MQ-9B SkyGuardian

MQ-9B SkyGuardian for Belgium

In October 2018, Belgium signed a letter of intent to purchase four MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft. This request was approved on 25 March 2019 by the US Agency for Security Cooperation.

Belgium is the sixth European country to order UAVs from the US company. The contract also includes two control stations, as well as various systems and spare parts. Some of the personnel will be trained in the USA at GA-ASI. These four MQ-9Bs will replace the “old ” B-Hunter. They (the information has just been released) should be withdrawn from service four months earlier than planned, as they no longer meet the standards and requirements of current operational theatres. This will allow optimal preparation of personnel for the introduction of the new systems in 2023.

For industrial collaboration with Belgian companies, this contract is not insignificant. Indeed, in addition to SABCA, Thales Belgium, companies such as Esterline, DronePort, AeroSimulators Group, Newtec, but also AIRobot, ALX Systems and Hexagon will take part in this programme. GA-ASI is expected to invest nearly $3 million in research and development in cooperation with Belgian companies.

Through this contract, SABCA will position itself in the world of military drones. The company, from its centre specialising in composite materials in Lummen, will manufacture SATCOM radomes for the MQ-9B SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian.

The MQ-9B is without a doubt one of the best in the field of military RPAs. The Californian company has a long and rich experience in the military theatres of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq among others for many years. Great Britain, which selected the MQ-9B in 2016, could be a partner country for Belgium in this programme. The MQ-9B with a flight endurance of 40 hours will allow missions directly from the Florennes AFB to areas such as the Middle East and Africa. Its air traffic detection and information system will enable it to be integrated into the already dense Belgian civil air traffic.

As we can see, with this choice the Belgian Air Component is projected into another world where capacities are multiplied compared to the old UAV systems.

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©General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) – MQ-9B SkyGuradian

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