General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has delivered its last MQ-1B Predator unmanned air system to the US Air Force, but also detailed plans to continue improving the fleet and seek further exports.

Aircraft 268 was handed over at the company's Gray Butte flight operations facility in Palmdale, California on 3 March. Its transfer closes out a paradigm-shifting, 16-year run during which time the Predator established a new market for UAS dedicated to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Since its then-unarmed RQ-1 Predator A made its flight debut in July 1994, the USAF has logged more than 920,000 flight hours with the type, including over Afghanistan and Iraq.

General Atomics Predator 268
 © General Atomics
Aircraft 268 was handed over on 3 March

Its manufacturer is building the last two aircraft in the orders backlog for the Predator A. One will be delivered to an undisclosed foreign customer, while the other will be operated as a trainer by the company's pilots, says General Atomics president Frank Pace.

While the USAF has shifted its orders to the larger Predator B-derived MQ-9 Reaper, Pace says work on the MQ-1B fleet continues. The Block 25 upgrade version is in development for the service, with improvements to include an encrypted line-of-sight datalink and a high-definition video camera.

Meanwhile, production of a new export version of the A-model aircraft named the Predator XP could begin in 18 months.

The design has been modified to remove the hardpoints used by the USAF to carry weapons such as Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, and restricted to lifting around 500kg (1,100lb) over a distance of 160nm (300km), Pace says. That will allow the aircraft to be licensed for export under the international Missile Technology Control Regime to buyers outside the trusted circle of NATO members, he adds.

"We're trying to market that version to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and a few other countries," Pace says.

General Atomics last month announced an agreement with the International Golden Group that could lead to the partners supplying the Predator XP to the UAE's armed forces.

Source: Flight International