The UK’s first Protector RG Mk1 RPAS aircraft has successfully completed its first flight after coming off the production line. The latest milestone in the UK Protector programme follows the announcement in July that the first three aircraft were being manufactured following the award by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) of a £65 million contract to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI). Protector is the british version of GA-ASI MQ-9B Sky Guardian, the latest Predator variant.

The aircraft took to the skies in the US on Friday, September 25, under the watchful eye of GA-ASI staff. Protector RG Mk1, which will replace the current Reaper Force when it is introduced to the front-line, is considered a step change in capability for the RAF. The cutting-edge platform will be capable of being flown anywhere in the world while being operated by personnel located at their home base at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire where it will enter service by mid-2024.

This aircraft is the fourth MQ-9B SkyGuardian® air vehicle (the first three MQ-9B air vehicles are company-owned assets supporting the certification qualification). The first Protector RPAS, known within GA-ASI as UK1, will be used to support system testing as part of a combined UK Ministry of Defence, U.S. Air Force and GA-ASI test team. Upon completion of this initial testing, UK1 will be delivered to the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence in the summer of 2021, but will remain in the USA to complete the Royal Air Force’s test and evaluation program.

This is the first of the three Protector aircraft currently on order, although the contract includes an option for the remaining 13 aircraft to complete the currently planned fleet of 16 aircraft that will more than double the capability currently provided by Reaper. Protector will have to meet stringent NATO and UK safety certification standards meaning it could operate in civilian airspace.

The Protector aircraft so will replace Reaper drones widely used by the RAF in in Afghanistan, in the Middle East and most recently in Syria and Iraq providing reconnaissance, surveillance and strike capabilities against the Daesh group.

Protector will be deployed in wide-ranging Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations where its ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours, offers the RAF vastly improved armed ISTAR capability. It would also be available, if requested, to support civilian agencies in the UK, for example in search and rescue and disaster response missions.

The aircraft will use enhanced data links and carry next-generation, low-collateral, precision strike weapons – the UK-made Brimstone missile (MBDA) and Paveway IV Laser Guided Bomb (Raytheon UK). The fleet will also have advanced anti-icing and lightning protection, providing the RAF with unprecedented flexibility to operate in adverse weather conditions. The first aircraft delivery to the RAF will be in 2023.

It was exciting to see the first flight of MQ-9B in the Protector configuration,” said GA-ASI President David R. Alexander. “The Royal Air Force has been a great partner for GA-ASI for more than a decade. We’re thrilled to see this first customer aircraft completed and we look forward to delivering their Protector fleet and gaining more MQ-9B SkyGuardian customers in NATO and around the globe.

MQ-9B Skyguardian and RAF Protector RG Mk.1

MQ-9B is GA-ASI’s most advanced RPAS. The RPAS is available as the SkyGuardian, the maritime SeaGuardian® (fitted with a multimode 360-degree field-of-regard Maritime Patrol Radar and optional sonobuoy capability) or, as with the UK Protector, in a special customer specified configuration. The first MQ-9B customer delivery will be to the UK, but the RPAS has also been selected by the Belgian Defense and Australian Defence Force, with significant interest from customers throughout the world.

Protector will be deployed in wide-ranging Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations where its ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours will offer a vastly improved ISTAR capability. Given that it is designed to fly in non-segregated, civil airspace, the Protector RPAS will be able to respond rapidly and offer flexibility, delivering many types of military or civil authority support missions, including search and rescue,” said Group Captain Shaun Gee, the RAF’s Director Air ISTAR Programmes.

MQ-9B development began in 2014 as a company-funded program to deliver an RPAS to meet NATO’s stringent airworthiness type-certification standard (STANAG 4671). STANAG certification will enable SkyGuardian, SeaGuardian and other MQ-9B variants to operate in civil airspace and better perform border patrol, fire detection and firefighting support, maritime patrol, and resource monitoring missions.

MQ-9B is provisioned for the GA-ASI-developed Detect and Avoid System (DAAS) to enhance safety of operations in civil and military airspace. The MQ-9B is built for adverse-weather performance with lightning protection, a damage tolerant airframe, and a de-icing system.

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