The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (sometimes called Predator B) is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) primarily for the United States Air Force (USAF). The MQ-9 and other UAVs are referred to as Remotely Piloted Vehicles/Aircraft (RPV/RPA) by the USAF to indicate their human ground controllers.
The MQ-9 is a larger, heavier, and more capable aircraft than the earlier General Atomics MQ-1 Predator; it can be controlled by the same ground systems used to control MQ-1s. The Reaper has a 950-shaft-horsepower (712 kW) turboprop engine (compared to the Predator’s 115 hp (86 kW) piston engine). The greater power allows the Reaper to carry 15 times more ordnance payload and cruise at about three times the speed of the MQ-1. The aircraft is monitored and controlled by aircrew in the Ground Control Station (GCS), including weapons employment.
MQ-9 Reaper Hunter / Killer UAV
In May 1998 General Atomics was awarded a block 1 upgrade contract to expand the capabilities of the Predator system. System upgrades include development of an improved relief-on-station (ROS) system which allows continuous coverage over areas of interest without any loss of time on station, secure air traffic control voice relay, Ku-band satellite tuning and implementation of an air force mission support system (AFMSS).
The upgrade also covers a more powerful turbocharged engine and wing de-icing systems to enable year-round operations. The upgraded Predator, the Predator B, has been operational in the Balkans since April 2001. In March 2005, the USAF awarded a further contract for the system design and development (SDD) of MQ-9 Reaper Hunter / Killer. 21 MQ-9 have been ordered and eight delivered to the USAF.
The first USAF MQ-9 squadron, the 42nd Attack Squadron, was formed in March 2007. It is based at Creech AFB in Nevada.
The USAF first deployed the MQ-9 Reaper to Afghanistan in October 2007, where it is being used for precision strikes. The MQ-9 Reaper flew its first operational mission in Iraq in July 2008.
The MQ-9 Reaper has an operational ceiling of 50,000ft, a maximum internal payload of 800lb and external payload over 3,000lb. It can carry up to four Hellfire II anti-armour missiles and two laser-guided bombs (GBU-12 or EGBU-12) and 500lb GBU-38 JDAM (joint direct attack munition). In May 2008, a USAF Reaper successfully test dropped four Raytheon GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II 500lb bombs, which have laser and GPS guidance.
The MQ-9 sensor payload can include the General Atomics Lynx SAR (synthetic aperture radar). Lynx also features ground moving target indicator technology. The Predator is to be flight tested with a L-3 communications tactical common datalink (TCDL).
In September 2012, the Block 1-plus Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper successfully completed its first flight. It is an upgraded version of the Block 1 Predator B. The new configuration features increased electrical power and Gross Takeoff Weight (GTOW), upgraded electrical system and new communications systems.
Predator B Sky Warrior UAV
In August 2005, a version of Predator B, called Sky Warrior, was chosen for the four-year system development and demonstration (SDD) phase of the US Army’s extended range / multi-purpose (ER/MP) UAV programme – 11 Sky Warrior systems, each with 12 air vehicles and five ground control stations.
Initial operating capability is planned for 2009. Two block 0 Sky Warrior UAVs were deployed to Iraq in April 2008.
Also in August 2005, the US Department of Homeland Security / Customs and Border Protection (DHS/CBP) ordered two Predator B systems for monitoring of the USA’s south-west border. The first was delivered in late 2005, the second in September 2006. Two further systems were ordered in October 2006, for monitoring operations on the border with Canada.
In September 2006, the UK requested the foreign military sale (FMS) of two MQ-9 Reaper systems with Lynx SAR, multi-spectral targeting systems and one ground station. Deliveries began in mid-2007 and the RAF deployed the system in Afghanistan in November 2007. In January 2008, the UK requested the sale of an additional ten MQ-9 systems.
In August 2008, Italy requested the sale of four MQ-9 Reaper systems with three ground stations.
A typical Predator system configuration would include four aircraft, one ground control system and one Trojan Spirit II data distribution terminal. The Predator air vehicle is 27ft in length and has a 49ft wingspan. The system operates at an altitude of 25,000ft and at a range of 400nm.
The endurance of the air vehicle is more than 40 hours and the cruise speed is over 70kt. The air vehicle is equipped with UHF and VHF radio relay links, a C-band line-of-sight data link which has a range of 150nm and UHF and Ku-band satellite data links.
An MQ-9 can adopt various mission kits and combinations of weapons and sensors payloads to meet combat requirements. Its Raytheon AN/AAS-52 multi-spectral targeting sensor suite includes a color/monochrome daylight TV, infrared, and image-intensified TV with laser rangefinder/laser designator to designate targets for laser guided munitions. The aircraft is also equipped with the Lynx Multi-mode Radar that contains synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that can operate in both spotlight and strip modes, and ground moving target indication (GMTI) with Dismount Moving Target Indicator (DMTI) and Maritime Wide-Area Search (MWAS) capabilities. The Reaper was used as a test bed for Gorgon Stare, a wide-area surveillance sensor system. Increment 1 of the system was first fielded in March 2011 on the Reaper and could cover an area of 16 km2 (6.2 sq mi); increment 2, incorporating ARGUS-IS and expanding the coverage area to 100 km2 (39 sq mi), achieved initial operating capability (IOC) in early 2014. The system has 368 cameras capable of capturing five million pixels each to create an image of about 1.8 billion pixels; video is collected at 12 frames per second, producing several terabytes of data per minute.
The UAV ground control station is built into a single 30ft trailer, containing pilot and payload operator consoles, three Boeing data exploitation and mission planning consoles and two synthetic aperture radar workstations together with satellite and line-of-sight ground data terminals.
The ground control station can send imagery data via a landline to the operational users or to the Trojan Spirit data distribution system which is equipped with a 5.5m dish for Ku-band ground data terminal and a 2.4m dish for data dissemination.
Predator follows a conventional launch sequence from a semi-prepared surface under direct line-of-sight control. The take-off and landing length is typically 2,000ft. The mission can be controlled through line-of-site data links or through Ku-band satellite links to produce continuous video.
Video signals received in the ground control station are passed to the Trojan Spirit van for worldwide intelligence distribution or directly to operational users via a commercial global broadcast system. Command users are able to task the payload operator in real-time for images or video on demand.
A navalized Reaper, named Mariner, was proposed for the U.S. Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program. It had an increased fuel capacity for an endurance of up to 49 hours.Variations included one for aircraft carrier operations with folding wings for storage, shortened, reinforced landing gear, an arresting hook, cut-down or eliminated ventral flight surfaces and six stores pylons for a total load of 3,000 pounds (1,360 kilograms). The Northrop Grumman RQ-4N was selected as the BAMS winner.
The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates two maritime variants of the MQ-9, known as Guardians. The U.S. Coast Guard evaluated the Guardian, including performing joint operations with CBP. The CBP and the Coast Guard operate one MQ-9 Guardian jointly out of land-based stations in Florida and Texas.
General Atomics hopes to test a sonobuoy launch capability from the Guardian in 2016 to demonstrate its ability to carry them, control them, and send information back to the ground station over a SATCOM link.
MQ-9 Block 5
On 24 May 2012, General Atomics conducted the successful first flight of its upgraded MQ-9 Block 1-plus Reaper. The Block 1-plus version was designed for increased electrical power, secure communications, automatic landing, increased gross takeoff weight (GTOW), weapons growth, and streamlined payload integration capabilities. A new high-capacity starter generator offers increased electrical power capacity to provide growth capacity; a backup generator is also present and is sufficient for all flight-critical functions, improving the electrical power system’s reliability via three independent power sources. New communications capabilities, including dual ARC-210 VHF/UHF radios with wingtip antennas, allow for simultaneous communications between multiple air-to-air and air-to-ground parties, secure data links, and an increased data transmission capacity. The new trailing arm main landing gear allows the carriage of heavier payloads or additional fuel. Development and testing were completed, and Milestone C was achieved in September 2012. Follow-on aircraft will be redesignated MQ-9 Block 5. On 15 October 2013, the USAF awarded General Atomics a $377.4 million contract for 24 MQ-9 Block 5 Reapers. The MQ-9 Block 5 flew its first combat mission on 23 June 2017.
International demand for a MALE RPAS capable of being certified for operation within civilian airspace drove General Atomics to develop a version of the platform known by GA-ASI as MQ-9B SkyGuardian, previously called Certifiable Predator B, to make it compliant with European flight regulations to get more sales in European countries. In order to fly over national airspace, the aircraft meets NATO STANAG 4671 airworthiness requirements with lightning protection, different composite materials, and sense and avoid technology; performance changes include a 79 ft (24 m) wingspan that has winglets and enough fuel for a 40-hour endurance at 50,000 ft (15,000 m). Features include High Definition EO/IR Full Motion Video sensor, De/Anti-Icing System, TCAS, and Automatic Take-Off & Land. The system also includes a completely redesigned & modernized integrated ground control station with 4 crew stations.
On 28 November 2019, the Australian Government announced the selection of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9B Sky Guardian as its preferred version of the Predator B for the RAAF’s Project AIR 7003 MALE armed remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) requirement.
The SeaGuardian is a proposed version of SkyGuardian but also fitted with Multimode 360 Maritime Surface Search Radar and Automatic identification system (AIS).
In April 2016, the United Kingdom announced that it intended to place an order for the Certifiable Predator B as part of its Protector MALE UAV program for the Royal Air Force. According to the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the Royal Air Force will operate at least 20 Protector systems by 2025, replacing all of its current 10 MQ-9A Reapers.
On 15 July 2018, a GA-ASI Company-owned MQ-9B SkyGuardian was flown from the United States to RAF Fairford in the UK for the first transatlantic flight of a MALE UAV. It was displayed at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) air show where the aircraft was given RAF Markings of No. 31 Squadron RAF. This followed an announcement by the RAF’s Chief of Air Staff that 31 Sqn would be the first RAF Squadron to operate a similar version of the MQ-9B aircraft, to be known as the Protector RG Mark 1 (RG1), starting in 2023.] In July 2020, the Ministry of Defence signed a contract for three Protector UAVs with an option on an additional thirteen aircraft.
Protector will be able to carry up to 18 Brimstone 2 missiles or Paveway IV bombs.
|Crew||0 onboard, 2 in ground station|
||36 ft 1 in (11 m)|
|Wigspan||65 ft 7 in (20 m)|
|Height||12 ft 6 in (3.81 m)|
|Empty weight||4,901 lb (2,223 kg)|
|Maximum weight||10,494 lb (4,760 kg)|
|Powerplant||1 × Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop, 900 hp (671 kW) with Digital Electronic Engine Control (DEEC)|
||300 mph (482 km/h, 260 kn)|
|Cruising speed at sea level
||194 mph (313 km/h, 169 kn)|
|Range||1,200 mi (1,900 km, 1,000 nmi)|
|Endurance||14 hours fully loaded|
|Ceiling in service
||50,000 ft (15,420 m)|
|Avionics||AN/DAS-1 MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System
AN/APY-8 Lynx II radar
Raytheon SeaVue Marine Search Radar (Guardian variants)
- French Air Force
- Italian Air Force
- Royal Moroccan Air Force
- Royal Netherlands Air Force
- Spanish Air Force – 4 MQ-9 Block 5 in active.
- UK Royal Air Force – 10 MQ-9 in active.
- German Navy – 3 RQ-20B Puma AE II systems in service.
- Latvian Army – 3 RQ-20A Puma systems
- United States Army – 325 systems, one per infantry company and 18 per brigade.