The Royal Air Force’s (RAF) first Protector RG Mk1 remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) has taken its first flight in the U.K., the service announced.
Last month, the RAF said that it was preparing its first delivered Protector for ground and air testing. Initial trials were to include ground testing of satellite links and taxi procedures, as well as takeoff and landing procedures.
The uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) flew a series of circuits around Royal Air Force Station Waddington (EGXW) and successfully taxied while under the control of a pilot on the ground, the service announced Friday.
The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) combat drone is based on GA-ASI’s MQ-9B SkyGuardian variant, which is deployed by the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command. The 16 Protectors headed to the RAF will have sovereign capabilities fully owned by the U.K., according to reports.
Step Change in Capability
According to RAF, the long-endurance Protector UAV features a suite of surveillance equipment that “will bring a critical global surveillance capability” —all while piloted from an air base in the U.K.
The aircraft will provide a “step change” in capability when it enters into service next year, the RAF said. The next 15 Protector UAVs will be phased in during the coming years, with all expected to be delivered and in service by July 2025.
“Capable of operating across the world with a minimal deployed footprint and remotely piloted from RAF Waddington, it can operate at heights up to 40,000 feet with an endurance of over 30 hours,” the RAF said.
The Protector features a wingspan of nearly 80 feet and maximum takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds. It is capable of carrying 500 pounds of Paveway IV laser-guided bombs and Brimstone 3 missiles.
Next-Gen Naval Air Power
The Protector’s first flight came as the Royal Navy conducted its own trial launch of a “Mojave” UAV, which is a variant of GA-ASI’s MQ1C Gray Eagle in the same family of the Protector. The event has “paved the way for the next generation of U.K. naval air power,” according to the service.
“HMS Prince of Wales is not conducting intense training and trials activity with the [U.S. Marine Corps] before returning home to Portsmouth,” NATO Air Command said Monday via X, formerly Twitter.
The largest uncrewed aircraft ever launched from a @RoyalNavy 🇬🇧aircraft carrier has paved the way for the next generation of UK naval air power. HMS Prince of Wales is now conducting intense training and trials activity with the @USMC 🇺🇸 before returning home to Portsmouth pic.twitter.com/Tx6ThZgCWp— NATO Air Command (@NATO_AIRCOM) November 20, 2023
While the Royal Navy deploys short-range UAVs for surveillance, the Mojave launch from the HMS Prince of Wales represented the largest from a British aircraft carrier, according to the service.
“No crewless machine its size—9 meters [29.5 feet] long, with a wingspan of 17 meters [56 feet—6 meters, [20 feet], wider than an F-35B Lightning stealth fighter] and weighing more than 1½ tons fully loaded—has ever flown from an aircraft carrier outside the US Navy before,” the Royal Navy said Friday.
The largest ever uncrewed aircraft launched from @RoyalNavy aircraft carrier @HMSPWLS ⚓️— Defence Operations 🇬🇧 (@DefenceOps) November 20, 2023
This technology offers a look to the future of the next generation of UK naval air power.
Read more here 👇👇👇https://t.co/FQsUsb53RF pic.twitter.com/zMMilWGxFD
“The Mojave trial is a European first—the first time that a remotely piloted air system of this size has operated to and from an aircraft carrier outside of the United States,” said Rear Admiral James Parkin, Royal Navy director develop, whose team planned the trial. “The success of this trial heralds a new dawn in how we conduct maritime aviation and is another exciting step in the evolution of the Royal Navy’s carrier strike group into a mixed crewed and uncrewed fighting force.”