General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ Predator brand has become something of a household name over the past 15 years of American-led counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and many other troubled hotspots in North Africa and around the globe.

The original RQ-1 first flew on 3 July 1994 and entered service in Serbia and Bosnia as a long-range reconnaissance aircraft operated from afar by a pilot and sensor operator in a tricked-out shipping container. Its "MQ" notoriety, though, came in 2002 with the addition of dual AGM-114 Hellfire missiles for precision strikes on opportune targets.

Since those early days, the Predator system has matured and evolved, shape-shifting into the US Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle, US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper and more recently, the sleek Predator C Avenger. Other spinoffs include the exportable Predator XP acquired by the United Arab Emirates, the Certifiable Predator B, the Predator B Maritime and the Guardian multi-mission maritime patrol platform.

The Predator family's success has seen General Atomics, a privately held technology company, prosper to the point where it is competing head-to-head with industry titans Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman in the US Navy’s recently rejigged Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) programme, offering its Avenger-based “Sea Avenger” unmanned tanking platform.

“We’re a privately held company, so we throw a lot of money at research and development, whether it’s an improved ground station or magnetic antennas for diverse applications,” General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' senior director of strategic development Chris Pehrson tells Flightglobal. “We have a lot of promising technologies that are in the early technology readiness level that we hope to eventually bring to the market.

“I think we’re agile [and] we’re sensitive to operational requirements and needs. We have the ability to be focused and take a longer look at things. We’re not looking quarter to quarter or at the annual report.”

Pehrson pointed to the Avenger platform, in development since 2009, as an example. It’s thought the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operates several examples, but the only customer General Atomics will disclose is the US Air Force, which purchased one as a technology demonstrator.

Pehrson says the Avenger hasn't had much market success so far, but it has nonetheless been a worthwhile investment because lessons learned during construction are being applied to other endeavours.

“It really hasn’t taken off with a customer, but we’ve learnt a lot from it and it was a risk reduction for the next development, whether that’s CBARS or other programmes,” he says. “The air force has, frankly, told us that they can’t stomach another programme of record. It’s a niche capability that provides a high-speed dash, where it can position itself around an area of interest faster than an MQ-9.”

Powered by a centreline Pratt & Whitney PW545B turbofan engine, the Avenger flies at 350-400kts compared to the MQ-9 Reaper’s cruise speed of 200kts. However that speed comes at the expense of endurance, with an advertised flight time of 18h, compared to 27h for the Honeywell TPE331 turboprop-powered MQ-9. “If something pops up, you can move to the area of interest very quickly. But once it’s on the scene, it’s not going to stay there for 24h,” Pehrson explains. It has been designed primarily with power and payload in mind over high-end stealth technology; its sweet spot is "semi-permissive" battlespaces.

Looking ahead to what might come after the MQ-9, Pehrson gave some personal views, but he acknowledges the air force doesn’t have the appetite right now to launch a full-scale MQ-X development effort. He says the service plans to keep flying the MQ-9 until 2035 or 2045.

However, Pehrson sees MQ-X fulfilling many more mission sets than conventional surveillance-and-strike, or hunter-killer operations. He imagines an aircraft that is inexpensive enough to field in large quantities, but more sophisticated and survivable than the MQ-9 and with enough power and payload capacity to carry many types of heavy ordnance and sensors. By adding low probability of intercept, low probability of detection (LPI/LPD) radios and datalinks, MQ-X could be teamed as a loyal wingman or "outrigger" with stealth fighters such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 and F-22, which could then concentrate on battle management and wouldn't give away their position by shooting.

In another role, MQ-X might carry an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, signals intelligence payload or communications equipment and act as an extension of low-quantity, high-value platforms like the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) or RC-135 Rivet Joint.

“It’s a networked sensor out there that anyone can tie into and have this collective intelligence,” Pehrson says. “It’s not just about what’s happening around that one aircraft, but what’s happening around the battlespace, the common situational awareness afforded by multiple platforms.”

He says MQ-X wouldn’t replace those platforms, but could be the key component in a distributed battle network of unmanned aircraft that can fly closer to hostile territory, or spread out laterally to monitor long borders. That mission can only be filled by inexpensive medium-altitude or high-altitude unmanned aircraft that can loiter for long periods of time, he says.

“There are investments in things like the RQ-170 and RQ-180; these high-end, exquisite platforms that have niche mission capability with a highly survivable stealthy platform. But they’re expensive; it’s what you’d call a ‘golden BB’,” Pehrson explains. “We are not a stealth company. We do not have that competency. We can reduce our radar cross section on CBARS and things like that, but if you want a high-end, really survivable penetrating stealth aircraft, you don’t come to General Atomics. That’s Lockheed’s and Boeing’s and Northrop’s business.

“But one of our greatest strengths is our affordability. It has to be affordable, you have to have it in numbers, but it also has to have this more survivable capability.”