General Atomic Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) expects that the US Department of Homeland Securities newly ordered MQ-9 Predator B’s will be deployed on the US-Canadian border and in the Caribbean.

Company president Thomas Cassidy says the first will deploy “on the northern border” while the second will support ongoing drug interdiction operations.

The two aircraft, ordered 9 October in a $33.9 million deal, are due to be delivered in the third quarter of 2007. Further orders are expected.

Speaking to Flight Unmanned at GA-ASI’s flight operations facility at Grey Butte in Southern California, Cassidy said that the company believed that significant numbers of Predator B aircraft would be enlisted in support of the US homeland security mission: “They are going to have a lot of airplanes operating on the borders,” he says.

GA-ASI handed over the DHS’s second Predator B on 9 October and the aircraft commenced initial operations this month with GA-ASI personnel in suport. The US Customs and Border Protection agency is due to take over full operation of the aircraft in early 2007, operating it remotely via satellite from its Air and Marine Operations Centre at Riverside, California.

The homeland security role for the aircraft is likely to spread to other parts of the world Cassidy says, with Australia’s Coastwatch requirement remaining a key target for the company, given the similarity with the DHS requirement

He says that company regards last month’s Predator-B demonstration for the Australian Department of Defence’s separate Air 7000 requirement as having run “extremely well” and providing an important precedent for the Coastwatch programme, despite no formal linkage between the two requirements.

Predator B is Australia’s only immediately available option if it wants to fast-track either requirement Cassidy argues, noting: "It is the only thing available right now”.

The Predator B used in the Australian Defence demonstration – a company owned asset - returned to the USA in late October and was in the process of undergoing post mission maintenance when Flight Unmanned visited the Grey Butte facility.

Grey Butte has also been hosting flight operations of the NASA-owned Altair version of the Predator B for the past month to support fire-watch operations across California. GA-ASI has previously used the aircraft under lease from NASA to support demonstration missions for both the US Navy and the Canadian Department of Defence under the designation ‘Mariner’.

The fire-watch missions saw Altair operating at 45,000ft and above with a fire-spotter payload assembled by NASA and incorporating a number of sensor types, including infra-red cameras set at a 45 degree angle. The flights averaged more than 20h and included a new endurance record for the type of 23h on one mission.

GA-ASI is currently preparing to hand over the first of NASA’s standard configuration Predator-B aircraft with the first, designated Ikhana, now undergoing final integration and test at Gray Butte.