General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has been awarded a roughly £100 million ($123 million) contract to complete test and evaluation-phase activities on the Protector RG1 remotely piloted air system on order for the UK Royal Air Force (RAF).
"This contract will see General Atomics test the aircraft to its limit and report back on its performance in advance of the aircraft's introduction to the front line in 2024," the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) says.
The US airframer, which says it has already performed more than 100 qualification test flights using a pair of SkyGuardian development vehicles, says the new award will enable it to complete certification activities on its Protector configuration for the UK, including for routine flights in non-segregated airspace.
Its new funding allocation also covers verification of the type's X-band satellite communications equipment, along with training, development and logistics planning tasks.
A first Protector delivery is scheduled for October 2021, with operations of the type to be performed from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Sixteen examples are on order for the service, along with seven ground control stations.
Development activities are being performed in the USA by General Atomics in partnership with a combined test team also including RAF personnel.
Announcing the award on the opening day of the DSEI exhibition in London on 10 September, defence minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said the incoming Protector RG1 offers the RAF "vastly improved armed intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance capability".
To be armed with MBDA Brimstone air-to-surface missiles and Raytheon UK Paveway IV precision-guided bombs, the new type will replace the service's current General Atomics Reaper fleet, operations with which are due to conclude in 2024. "The aircraft's design enables almost unlimited payload options in the future," the MoD notes.