Guardian leads Predator B modernisation push

Washington DC
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New and upcoming technology injections for the US government's Predator B family of unmanned aircraft systems will see first operations on a prototype maritime variant under a joint programme between the US Coast Guard (USCG) and US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) which begins operational testing this spring.

Called the Guardian, the turboshaft-powered system carries a Raytheon electro-optical and infrared turret similar to the Predator B but with Raytheon SeaVue radar under its belly, offering persistent target acquisition and tracking capabilities and 30h endurance for maritime operations.

New features slated for first use on the Guardian include an electromagnetic expulsion de-icing system for wing and tail leading edges, an onboard traffic alert and collision avoidance system, a laser altimeter-based landing guidance system for pilots at altitudes below 100ft (30m), and a Jeppesen electronic flight bag for mission planning and weather information in the ground control station.

USCG and CBP held a roll-out ceremony for the first prototype at airframer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Predator B production site in Palmdale, California on 7 December.

The inaugural Guardian will be stationed at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after an initial test and evaluation period starting early next year. As well as drug interdiction of fast boats and semi-submersibles, the aircraft will be used for Space Shuttle and expendable vehicle launch support operations for NASA and by the US Air Force for launch vehicle and missile tests.

A second Guardian will come on line next summer once its radar is delivered. It will be located at the naval air station in Corpus Christi, Texas.

USCG, which has been working on the technology demonstrator programme with CBP for two years, has not yet committed to buying the variant. USCG pilots will operate the CBP's Guardian during the operational test and evaluation phase in Florida from January, where the service says it will "see how well it augments USCG operational requirements".

As part of the technology demonstration phase of the programme, the services put a Predator B in the environmental testing chambers at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida for one month in March 2008 to detemine the effects of humdity, moisture, ice and snow on the aircraft. Upgrades to the aircraft as a result of testing include gaps and seals for the airframe. To handle the power needs for the de-icing system, General Atomics will upgrade the aircaft's 10kV alternator to 45kV.