MQ-9B Flexibility Continues to Impress
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) has recently completed a five-week series of flight demonstrations with an MQ-9B SeaGuardian UAS operating in partnership with the Royal Air Force (RAF), culminating in participation in the UK’s Exercise Joint Warrior in September.
“The support of the RAF was key to the success of our demonstrations,” said GA-ASI VP of International Strategic Development, Robert Schoeffling. “Our partnership allowed us to achieve a number of industry firsts as we showcased our innovative RPA to senior military officials from 16 countries.”
The flights showcased many operational capabilities of the MQ-9B, including its advanced maritime ISR and detect and avoid system (DAAS). During Joint Warrior, a demonstration of Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) took place with an RAF P-8, showing SeaGuardian’s ability to compliment and support ASW tasking, which included tracking, monitoring and reporting of sonobuoys. A two-day demonstration in Netherlands airspace showcased the aircraft’s maritime surveillance capability in support of allies. The Netherlands has four MQ-9A on order, the first of which is expected later this year.
Another landmark event was a 12 September flight across the UK controlled by NATS, the UK’s civilian Air Navigation Service Provider. “The MQ-9B is the first RPA to be allowed to fly so extensively in UK-controlled airspace,” said Mark Watson, Head of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM) Service Integration for NATS. “This moves us a long way towards same-day notification for ‘file and fly’ privileges as an Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC)-capable platform.” The UK Civil Airworthiness Authority has approved MQ-9B for operations in unsegregated, uncontrolled airspace for the first time, based on the suite of airspace deconfliction technologies and extensive documentation provided in the Safety Case.
SeaGuardian is the maritime version of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, a UK-specific variant of which has been designated PROTECTOR RG MK1 by the RAF, which will have 16 aircraft in inventory.
Participation in Joint Warrior showcased how the MQ-9B’s maritime capabilities can be integrated with other air, maritime and land assets. An international audience observed the RPA’s maritime capability which includes a multi-mode surface-search radar with Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) imaging mode, an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, Electronic Support Measures (ESM) along with the standard High-Definition, Full-Motion Video sensor equipped with optical and infrared cameras. As a result of a visit from leadership from the UK Border Force during which they observed the capabilities of the system, a Military Aid to Civil Authorities (MACA) demonstration flight was conducted over the English Channel.
In support of the European demonstrations, GA-ASI partnered with SES, leveraging the latter’s GEO connectivity in Ku-band as well as X-band reachback provided via the GovSat-1 satellite. The SATCOM service enabled the MQ-9 to operate securely with a high-capacity datalink, allowing real-time transmission of sensor data from the aircraft and operations center using a SATCOM link, including with data rates up to 70 Mbps in secure reachback.
“With our global satellite connectivity services, SES has been supporting the critical needs of GA-ASI and their government customers for almost two decades, and we’re delighted to take part in this demonstration effort as part of our long-standing relationship with General Atomics,” said Will Tong, VP of Strategic Government Initiatives and Head of the Aero ISR market at SES Networks. “As our customer needs evolve and require increasingly secure, flexible and high-performance services for real-time data exchange and reachback, we are happy to leverage our existing capabilities and to further innovate with the next-generation high-throughput systems like O3b mPOWER, enabling network sovereignty and cloud-scale applications that governments are looking for.”