Even though the company is mainly known for its military drones, the use of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA- ASI) aircraft for non-military purposes has increased significantly in recent years, Terry Kraft, GA-ASI regional vice president of international strategic development for Southeast Asia Pacific, has said.
“We have seen more aircraft used for things like wide-area surveillance of large gatherings or critical infrastructure. MQ-9s have responded to a wide range of natural disasters in the US, such as fires in California and flooding in Texas and Florida. RPA have been used to create cellphone communication networks when land-based facilities are not available. We see continuous growth in these areas,” Kraft told Daily News in an interview.
Kraft also spoke about the interest that GA-ASI platforms has generated in countries in the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia regions, and the initiatives that the company has undertaken in the Asia Pacific to ensure that RPAS are able to fly in unsegregated airspace in the region.
The Royal Malaysian Air Force is considering GA-ASI’s MQ-9B SeaGuardian as it looks to expand its fleet. What makes the SeaGuardian ideal for the RMAF?
Malaysia has critical needs that are currently difficult to meet. Specifically, in the areas of control of Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, control of smuggling and illegal activities at sea, and response to natural disasters. With over-the-horizon capabilities, the SeaGuardian can respond to these challenges covering over 540,000 square nautical miles with over 35 hours of continuous endurance. When backed by the significant experience of GA-ASI for the introduction, operation and support of the RPA, the MQ-9B SeaGuardian would prove to be a game changer for broad area ISR for the Malaysian Armed Forces and other government agencies.
According to reports, many navies in the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia regions are interested in the SeaGuardian for maritime surveillance purposes. What is it that makes the RPA attractive for militaries?
The SeaGuardian has an unmatched range of both military and civil applications. What is unique about an RPA with satellite capability is that it can put advanced sensor anywhere needed for very long periods of time. This “unblinking eye” has proven very popular for surveillance needs – in fact General Atomics RPAs are airborne in 70 continuous orbits around the world providing overwatch 24/7. Besides watching movements in a particular area, General Atomics RPAs can ensure safety of military units as they engage in contested areas, thus saving lives.
What other programs are GA-ASI pursuing in the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia regions?
GA-ASI has received notices from both India and Australia that those countries intend to procure MQ-9 aircraft. Many other countries are evaluating the platform for their use with the MQ-9 family commonly referred to as the ‘warfighters’ choice.
How far is GA-ASI in its efforts to make MQ-9B to be the first RPA to fly in civil airspace? How important is the landmark for the company?
The ability to be certified to operate in civil airspace is critical to the future of RPA. GA-ASI has worked with NASA, the FAA, Honeywell and the US Department of Homeland Security for over seven years to create a system that will allow RPA to operate safely alongside manned, civilian aircraft in controlled and uncontrolled airspace. GA-ASI is unique in that we are the only RPA developer that will field this capability in the near future, beginning with the Protector model of the MQ-9B in the UK. Being certified means that every component of the system, from the aircraft, to the links, to the ground control station, meet stringent ICAO, FAA and other inter- national standards.
In your opinion, how long will it take before we see RPAs flying in non-segregated airspace globally? Is GA-ASI working on any initiative to expedite RPAs flying in civil airspace in the Asia Pacific?
We are nearing the day when RPA will be able to ‘file and fly’ in non-segregated airspace. While the capability may be mature, it may take time for regulatory bodies to recognize and evaluate procedures. GA-ASI is working several initiatives in the Asia-Pacific for such tasks, including multiple demonstrations in the near future.
What are some of the common characteristics of various GA-ASI platforms?
GA-ASI has flown over 5.5 million hours while maintaining a mission-capable rate of over 90 per cent. Innovations we develop for one platform migrate to others, such as automatic takeoff and landing, which began with the Gray Eagle for the US Army, and is now part of our MQ-9 fleet. More than 90,000 automatic takeoffs and landings have been performed with our aircraft. Another common aspect is our ability to integrate multiple payloads on a single platform – we have carried almost any type of payload imaginable and are uniquely suited to meet the needs of our customers. Another common feature between GA-ASI platforms is the use of Beyond-Line-of Sight SATCOM. GA-ASI has around 20 years of SATCOM BLOS experience which provides a 10-fold increase in mission coverage when compared to Line-of-Sight (LOS) operations. Our experience in using SATCOM BLOS clearly differentiates us from our competitors.
Your company has more than 25 years of experience in making RPA. How much of an advantage does this give you over other companies in the field?
Our advantage is our dedicated and experienced workforce building the most innovative and dependable RPA in the world. With over 9,000 employees, GA-ASI has developed and fielded 23 different variants of RPA in the last 26 years, 15 of which are in operation today. GA-ASI operates in over 50 sites world-wide, including for many overseas customers; hence, we are very experienced in introducing capabilities for nations without previous RPA experience, providing effective training, and ensuring effective and safe operation and support, against recognized airworthiness standards are implemented. Our size and experience has allowed us to grow into the areas of multiple aircraft control, satellite-only launch and recovery and short runway operations. We have accomplished all of this while increasing our payload and endurance – recently completing a flight of over 48 hours with the MQ-9B. With our detect-and-avoid system, we can operate seamlessly in all classes of airspace, and recently completed a trans-Atlantic flight from North Dakota to the UK.
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