Reaper Aircraft Capabilities Tested in Canadian Arctic

By Mikayla Easley
General Atomics’ MQ-9A Reaper

General Atomics image

General Atomics’ MQ-9A Reaper remotely piloted aircraft has reached unprecedented northern latitudes, paving the way for future security and surveillance missions in the Arctic regions, according to the company.

The MQ-9A “Big Wing” configured platform – which has a 79-foot wingspan and 43-hour range – successfully flew past the 78th parallel north for the first time, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems announced in September. The Reaper took off at a company flight and training test center in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Sept. 7, passed over Haig-Thomas Island in the Canadian Arctic and returned Sept. 8.

Not only was the flight one of the longest-range trips ever completed by an MQ-9, it also demonstrated the unmanned aircraft system’s new capabilities for security and surveillance missions in Arctic regions, said C. Mark Brinkley, a General Atomics spokesperson.

“We have now proven that our UAS can operate safely in Arctic regions, over land and sea, where effective command and control and [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] data transfer was previously not feasible,” Brinkley said.

The Arctic is an area of increasing strategic importance to the Pentagon, as adversaries China and Russia make military investments in the region.

Unmanned systems are normally unable to fly through Arctic or Antarctic regions because legacy satellite communication data links become unstable in those environments, Brinkley noted. The farther north or south a drone flies, the distance from the satellite combined with the amount of atmosphere a signal must travel through deteriorates the connection to ground control stations.

To strengthen the Reaper’s connection during the high-latitude flight, General Atomics used the L-band Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (LAISR) Service designed by Inmarsat Government.

“What’s particularly unique about [LAISR] is that it’s very insensitive to those atmospheric effects,” Inmarsat Government President Steve Gizinski said in an interview. LAISR employs a low satellite frequency that is less susceptible to deterioration and uses an antenna with a wider beamwidth. This allowed General Atomics to maintain its connection with the Reaper during its 25.5 hour, 4,500 mile flight.

“It’s less susceptible, and that makes it really great for connecting something at a really high latitude with a [geosynchronous] satellite,” Gizinski said.

Meanwhile, General Atomics is also conducting demos in Europe, where it has flown the MQ-9B SeaGuardian from England to both the Netherlands and Scotland, Brinkley said.

Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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