General Atomics Aeronautical Systems will deliver the extended range MQ-1C Gray Eagle to the US Army by 2018, the army’s medium altitude and endurance office product manager says this week.

The Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER) exceeds the army’s 14h time on station requirement with a more than 40h endurance. Congress provided the GE-ER to the army with a $49 million addition to the fiscal year 2015 budget, which kicked off initial procurement. The effort was based on internal research and development by GA-ASI.

“Currently we’re on contract to buy 19,” Lt Col Cliff Sawyer told an audience at the annual AUVSI Xponential show in Dallas, Texas. “We’re in the process of finalizing the last production contract with some options.”

GA-ASI has built two GE-ERs, including one stationed at the army’s Redstone Arsenal where the service began electromagnetic testing on the UAV three weeks ago, Sawyer says. The programme will culminate with operational testing in 2018 with the army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) Company E, which provides the regiment’s precision aerial-surveillance capabilities.

Meanwhile, the army is still searching for smaller weapons that could augment the Gray Eagle’s Hellfire missile capability. Today, the platform is limited to carrying four of the 48kg (106lb) Lockheed Martin rail-launched Hellfires. With the current operations against ISIS, army aviators have more insurgents to kill and shouldn’t have to choose which engagements they can make, says Col Paul Cravey, army training doctrine and command (TRADOC) capability manager for unmanned aircraft systems.

“If you can fly your air vehicle for 20h and you only have two munitions on, you want to use all that endurance time in the air,” Cravey says. “We’re trying to give the commander more options to engage more targets kinetically downrange if he chooses to do so with that munition.”

The munition is not dependent on the upgraded Heavy Fuel Engine-180 (HFE-180) which comes on the extended-range MQ-1C, he adds.

“Those are mutually exclusive things,” Cravey says. "The engine types have nothing to do with one another, they’ll be able to carry it on either one, the weight is not a deciding factor.”