Revealed: internal discussions between MoD and regulators on flying Predator drones in UK

Details of discussions between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on plans to allow the RAF’s upgraded version of the US Predator drone to be flown within the UK have been released following a Freedom of Information request by Drone Wars UK.  More than 200 pages of internal documents including emails, minutes of meetings, discussion papers and copies of slide presentations have been released. Many of the documents have been redacted, some extremely heavily.

David Cameron announced in October 2015 that the Britain was to purchase the new version of the Predator, which the UK is re-naming as ‘Protector’.  The UK’s current type of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, the Reaper, are unable to be flown in the UK due to safety issues and the new version was 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. Read more

Reaper and Predator drone manufacturer opens UK office

Neal Blue, CEO and owner of General Atomics with a Predator drone

The makers of the Predator and Reaper drone, General Atomics, have announced that they have opened an office in London  (although omit to say exactly where it is!).   Their  brief press notice says:

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA‑ASI), a leading manufacturer of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), tactical reconnaissance radars, and surveillance systems, today announced that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems UK Ltd (GA-UK), an affiliated entity, has been established with an office in London.  The office will be managed by Dr. Jonny King. 

 “We are pleased that the London office will provide dedicated support for the Ministry of Defence’s [MoD’s] Remotely Piloted Air Systems [RPAS] requirements,” said Neal Blue, Chairman and CEO of GA-ASI.

GA-ASI has delivered a total of six aircraft to the MoD since the first UK Predator® B/ MQ-9 Reaper UAS was deployed to Afghanistan in October 2007, with the fleet expected to nearly double in size over the next few years.  The aircraft have logged over 17,000 flight hours to date in support of UK forces on the ground.

A brief web search on Jonny King reveals that he has previously worked at QinetiQ on Autonomous Systems and Intelligent Vehicles and most recently at Cobham where he was responsible for developing Cobham’s Unmanned Systems business.  Cobham has been a longtime partner with General Atomics on the Reaper programme

Last summer General Atomics announced that it was looking for a UK partner for its bid on the future replacement for the Reaper UAV, for which  General Atomics are bidding their Avenger drone  in competition with BAE’s Mantis drone.

Crash of the Drones

This Predator drone crashed near Creech airforce base in April 2009

Today’s LA Times has an interesting article about US Predator and Reaper drone crashes compiled from Pentagon accident reports.   The article reports that  “thirty-eight Predator and Reaper drones have crashed during combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and nine more during training on bases in the U.S. — with each crash costing between $3.7 million and $5 million. Altogether, the Air Force says there have been 79 drone accidents costing at least $1 million each”.  These reports do not, of course, include details about crashes of the CIA’s Predator’s in Pakistan.

In a sign of how touchy the General Atomics, producer of the Reaper and Predator drones are about criticism of their wonderful toy, Rear Adm. Thomas J. Cassidy Jr., President of the aircraft systems group at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego is quoted in the article saying

“These airplanes are flying 20,000 hours a month, OK?  That’s a lot of flying.   Some get shot down. Some run into bad weather. Some, people do stupid things with them. Sometimes they just run them out of gas.”

According to the Air Force reports, one drone crashed into a Sunni party headquarters in Mosul which must have been embarrassing.   Another Predator drone was simply reported as ‘lost somewhere in Afghanistan’ after contact was lost and no wreckage found. 

When one of the UK’s Reapers crashed in Afghanistan in April 2008, the SAS was sent in to recover “sensitive technology” before it was blown up.  The Sun provided a helpful slideshow and report!