US drone manufacturer General Atomics is to fly one of the updated versions of the Predator drone – dubbed SkyGuardian by the company but named as the ‘Protector’ by the MoD – into the UK next month. The drone will undertake a 20 hour flight from the company’s test centre in North Dakota direct to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, arriving on 11 July to be part of the static display at the Fairford International Air Show later that week (13 – 15 July). It will be the first transatlantic flight for a medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone.
David Cameron announced in October 2015 that the Britain was to purchase the new version of the armed drone. The UK’s current armed drone, the Reaper, is unable to be flown in the UK due to safety issues and the new version is being purchased, in part, to enable the RAF to fly its large armed drones within the UK for training as well as security and civil contingency purposes. However, as we have detailed previously, the company and the MoD have struggled to convince the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that the drone can be flown safely in UK airspace.
General Atomics says next month’s flight and participation in the show is “in honor of the RAF100 celebration.” General Atomics CEO said in a press release:
“Given the distinguished 100-year history of the RAF, we believe that this flight is an appropriate way to celebrate the RAF’s position as a leader in innovation.”
In reality, the flight is in part PR and in part trying to lay the ground work to convince regulators that the UK’s new drones can fly regularly in UK airspace – albeit in restricted way. The CAA announced that it will impose a series of airspace restrictions over the UK to accommodate the flight and it is also setting up a series of Temporary Danger Areas around Fairford but also in Cornwall and West Wales in case the flight has to divert (to either RNAS Culdrose or Predannack Aerodrome in Cornwall; or Llanbedr Aerodrome, in West Wales). The recent crash of a Watchkeeper drone in Wales – the fifth – is no doubt in regulators minds.
While the RAF press release insists that the drone will be “operated at all times by a fully qualified pilot” as the pilot will be based in North Dakota the delay in the signal to the aircraft will be too long to undertake a piloted landing. The aircraft will no doubt use its automatic take-off and landing capability.
It should be noted that the RAF press release about the flight puts as much emphasis on the use of the drone in the UK as it does overseas. It quotes Defence Minister Guto Bubb saying that it will be used to keep Britain safe at home:
“With almost double the endurance of its predecessor and armed with the latest missiles and surveillance technology, this unmanned aircraft will not only give us a decisive advantage on the battlefield but will help us reach new heights to keep Britain safe at home and overseas.”
It also goes on to say that the new drone “is capable of supporting an array of homeland defence tasks, including Military Aid to Civil Authorities.” While search and rescue and flood prevention (!) are highlighted, it is likely that domestic surveillance activities are also being considered.