General Atomics Aeronautical Systems is arriving at the Farnborough air show on a high, after completing a historic transatlantic first with its MQ-9B SkyGuardian – the basis for the UK Royal Air Force's future Protector remotely-piloted air system.

The medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicle touched down at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire on 11 July, following a more than 24h direct flight from Grand Forks, North Dakota: a distance of 3,760nm (6,950km), flown at 27,000ft. The aircraft appeared in the static display at the Royal International Air Tattoo.

To carry the designation Protector RG1 in UK service, and to replace the RAF's current MQ-9 Reapers, the new type is expected to achieve initial operational capability during 2023. The service's 31 Sqn – formerly equipped with the Panavia Tornado GR4 – will be the first unit to field the type, at its Waddington base in Lincolnshire.

Protector 31 Sqn - Mark Kwiatkowski/FlightGlobal

Mark Kwiatkowski/FlightGlobal

Air Cdre Ian Gale, the RAF's senior responsible owner, ISTAR programmes, described the meticulously-planned transatlantic crossing as "mundane", with the SkyGuardian touching down within 4cm of the runway centreline. He adds that the aircraft represents a transformative capability.

Offering twice the endurance of the Reaper and with a larger, 24m (79ft) wingspan, the new type is expected to carry MBDA Brimstone air-to-surface missiles and Raytheon Systems Paveway IV precision-guided bombs using six under-wing pylons.

The SkyGuardian uses an automatic take-off and landing system and satellite-controlled taxiing, with other enhanced features including lightning protection and anti-icing. General Atomics has already demonstrated a flight endurance of over 48h with the type.

However, its most significant advance is around planned certification to operate routinely in non-segregated airspace alongside commercial traffic.

"Protector is going to change how we look at remotely-piloted aircraft," Gale says. "I think it is going to change European airspace – when we put detect and avoid in there, you suddenly reveal the limitations of the human [operator]."

The Ministry of Defence on 13 July announced a £93 million ($123 million) investment in infrastructure at Waddington to accommodate the future Protector fleet, including a new hangar. Fourteen of an expected 21 air vehicles are currently on order, but Gale expects this to increase over time.

"I think we will see that the utility for this aeroplane is so spectacular that we probably will feel the urge to look again at those figures," he says. Potential further applications include operating in concert with the RAF's Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, possibly while carrying a maritime search radar, plus supporting homeland security, coastal patrol and police operations.

Robert Walker, General Atomics' senior director, strategic development, notes that the company's internal investment in a SeaGuardian derivative – which has included flying with a Leonardo Seaspray 7500E radar – has drawn interest from India.

Separately, the company is hoping to be selected to supply the US Navy's MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker, facing competition from Boeing and Lockheed Martin. A decision could come as soon as mid-August.

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