The first General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9B SkyGuardian for the Royal Air Force made its first flight at El Mirage in California on September 25.
The unmanned system – to be known as the Protector RG.1 in RAF service – is the first production aircraft of GA-ASI’s certified version of the MQ-9 Reaper family. The first flight comes just two months after the UK signed a contract with GA-ASI for its first three of up to 16 systems.
“The inaugural flight of the UK’s first Protector is an exciting and welcome step in the development of our ground-breaking fleet,” UK Defence Minister Jeremy Quin said in a statement. “With increased range and endurance, greater ISR and weapons capacity and improved weather resilience, Protector will play a vital intelligence and deterrent role in countering future threats.”
Apart form the integration of a due-regard radar to allow the SkyGuardian/Protector to operate in controlled airspace, the air vehicle also features a longer wingspan, greater fuel capacity, greater payload, and other enhancement over the baseline MQ-9 Reaper.
The UK’s first Protector system will remain in the US to conduct system testing initially as part of a combined RAF, USAF, and GA-ASI test team, before being handed over to the RAF in mid-2021. The first aircraft is expected to be delivered to it operating base of RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire in 2023.
Australia has selected the SkyGuardian for the ADF’s AIR 7003 armed UAS requirement, and a contract for the first of up to 12 systems is scheduled to be signed in 2021.