General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has carried out the maiden flight of an enhanced endurance variant of its MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicle at its Palmdale, California facility.
Conducted on 18 February, the test flight of the extended range (ER) "Long Wing" MQ-9 saw the UAV fly at 7,500ft and carry out a series of airworthiness manoeuvres. The company says a full test programme will take place to declare the type operationally capable.
The test vehicle was retrofitted with a 4m (13ft) longer wing than the MQ-9 version, at 24m, with an increased internal fuel capacity and additional hardpoints. The wings also have provisions for de-icing and integrated low- and high-band radio-frequency antennas.
The new version of the medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV will be able to fly for 40h, up from the 27h endurance of the previous system.
The US Air Force has fielded an interim retrofitted Block 5 model with an extended range capability that includes auxiliary external fuel tanks and new wings, but General Atomics is looking towards a production variant featuring the longer wings and increased internal fuel capability as a standard that could be certified to fly in national airspace.
The wing has been designed to conform with NATO’s airworthiness standard for UAVs and includes lightning and bird strike protection, non-destructive testing, and advanced composite and adhesive materials for extreme environments, General Atomics co-owner Linden Blue says.
The longer wings are the first elements for the certifiable development project, and the first production example is expected in early 2018.
Further hardware and software upgrades planned for the certifiable MQ-9 will include sense-and-avoid capability, improved structural fatigue and damage tolerance, more robust flight control software, and enhancements allowing operations in adverse weather, the company says. Other improvements include short-field take-off and landing capability and spoilers on the wings which enable precision automatic landings.
Under its Protector programme, the UK will acquire 20 new UAVs to replace its 10 Block 1 Reapers. It is expected to choose either the Block 5 currently in production or wait for the ER version.
Another recent success for the MQ-9 programme was a contract award from Spain for the delivery of four Block 5 Reapers, plus two ground control stations.