The US Air Force is pressing forward with a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper upgrade that would allow the widely fielded armed aircraft to takeoff and land automatically.
This is a capability already inherent in the US Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle system, but the air branch has been slow to adopt it.
Col Travis “Flare” Burdine, the air force’s division chief for remotely piloted aircraft operations at the Pentagon, says the MQ-9 is still launched and recovered manually at an airfield the same way the RQ-1 Predator was back in 1995.
With automation, he says learning to fly the MQ-9 will be as easy as launching as training to operate the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, which has flown automatically since it introduction.
Burdine says automatic takeoff and landing would make training Reaper pilots easier. It would allow access to more runways and take the control link off the current frequency band, which he says it "not a very good one to be in".
MQ-9s are typically operated via satellite from operational bases in the USA, like Creech AFB in Nevada. Airmen who launch and recover the aircraft must be forward deployed to the Middle East or wherever else those aircraft are stationed for combat operations.
“If we had automatic takeoff and landing, we could do that a lot faster and have less people back home in the training schools,” says Burdine, speaking at AUVSI’s Xponential conference in New Orleans, Louisiana on 3 May. “It would allow us to go to other airfields, which we’re serious about, and not have to divert because of weather so often.
“We are seriously looking at how to integrate auto takeoff and landing. We’re going to look to the army, who figured it out with the same manufacturer.”
In a recent interview with Flightglobal, General Atomics’ senior director of strategic development, Chris Pehrson, noted that the air force tried last year to shift money from other accounts to begin implementing the automatic takeoff and landing system, but the request was denied by Congress. The air force has since put it into its regular, five-year MQ-9 programme plan for fiscal year 2017. Pehrson says the system is ready now and that General Atomics is keen to move faster if needed.
He explains that MQ-9s are capable of operating from 3,000ft (0.9km) runways. However, because it is landed manually from a control station, the air force requires an extra 1,000ft safety margin at each end of the landing zone for a total runway length of 5,000ft.
“With automatic takeoff and landing, we can put it down on the same spot consistently,” he says. “That’s going to give you a 3,000ft runway capability.”