DSEI NEWS: RAF Reports Progress on New Medium-Class Protector Drone
U.K. Ministry of Defence
LONDON — The Royal Air Force is continuing to test fly its new Protector unmanned aerial vehicle over the skies and seas of Great Britain as it pushes toward its goal of developing a drone “made in the U.K.”
The Protector RG Mk 1 “is real. It’s live and it’s literally flying over your skies right now,” Group Capt. Shaun Gee, Protector RG Mk 1 program director, told attendees at the Defense and Security Equipment International conference in London Sept. 15.
The SkyGuardian, the name of the sea-going prototype for the Protector, is outfitted with a maritime radar and taking part in Exercise Joint Warrior off the north coast of Scotland in mid-September.
“This demonstrates fully that the Protector is a truly next-generational, multi-domain, multi-mission platform,” he said.
The RAF has been flying U.S.-made Reaper medium-altitude, long endurance drones manufactured by General Atomics since 2004. In 2016, the United Kingdom kicked off the Protector program in order to make it less reliant on the United States and have a “sovereign capability.” While the Protector is using General Atomics Predator B fuselages, the remainder of the aircraft is being developed in the United Kingdom.
The Joint Warrior exercise is demonstrating manned-unmanned teaming in a naval setting with a crewed P-8 surveillance aircraft while in support of a carrier strike group, Gee said.
The footprint is “absolutely minuscule” compared to the Reaper, Gee said. It has automated takeoff and landing, reducing the need for pilots to carry out those tasks.
Mapping missions takes minutes, and there is no longer the need to contract out for crews and maintenance personnel, he said. One of the knocks on the old Reapers is, while they had no pilots in the cockpit, it took more ground-support crews than conventional aircraft to keep them flying.
The Protector can fly up to 72 hours unloaded, and 17 hours fully loaded with weapons and sensors, he said. About 40 hours is a typical mission, Gee added. It is now certified to fly in U.K civilian airspace.
“This is a real game changer in terms of what this can bring for us,” Gee said.
As for the benefits of making a homegrown aircraft, there are currently 12 U.K. contractors involved in the program, some some 400 million pounds flowing back into the economy as opposed to the U.S. made version, Gee said. And there are more opportunities as it develops the maritime version and its radars, he added.
The country is opening an international training center for the aircraft's pilots and maintainers, and Belgium will be the first ally to send some of its personnel, he said.
Wing Cmdr. Neil Hallett, Protector RG Mk 1 program manager, said the communications backbone is also a large part of the development. “We’ve got a plethora of sensors and systems collecting an awful lot of data. What we need to do is get that data to whoever needs it, wherever they are in the world, at the speed of relevance as much as possible,” he said. A content delivery network is expected to be set up within the next month, he added.
The initial service date for the Royal Air Force is expected in 2024 with 16 aircraft being procured in the program of record, Gee said.