POWAY, Calif. — As the manufacturer of the Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, General Atomics is one of the most prodigious defense contractors working today. It is also one of the most secretive and reclusive, opting to keep new developments under lock and key.

Until now.

The company invited reporters on Aug. 15 and 16 to a media open house at their headquarters in Poway, California, for a series of briefings about emerging technology and GA’s growth path for the MQ-9 Reaper.

Here is a snapshot of what the company is working on.

A Reaper that can fly in national airspace

General Atomics is racing to make its MQ-9B Sky Guardian the first UAV certified to fly through civil airspace in the United States and Europe without needing special permissions from the Federal Aviation Administration or NATO.

Sky Guardian looks and flies like a baseline MQ-9 Reaper, but is pretty much a completely new aircraft, said a GA official that was not authorized to speak on the record. Almost all GA media day briefings were made available “on background,” meaning that journalists were not permitted to attribute information to specific subject matter experts.

The MQ-9B has longer wings, which help give it a lengthier endurance of 40 hours compared to 27 hours in a Block 5 Reaper. It might also have a much longer lifespan of about 40,000 flight hours, double that of a baseline MQ-9, however the official noted that figure still needs to be proven through lab tests.

GA began funding Sky Guardian in 2012 with its own investment dollars. One of the first steps, the official said, was creating an improved lightweight composite material that could withstand dry and humid climates and survive harsh weather. The company also incorporated technologies to keep ice from accumulating on the aircraft and embedded a special copper mesh that dissipates lightning into the composite material on the underside of the drone.

In addition, Sky Guardian will feature various sensors that allow it to detect and avoid aircraft, including TCAS and ADS-B systems that sense aircraft that also use those transponders. Around 2020, GA will fold in a due regard radar that will allow it to track aircraft that don’t use TCAS and ADS-B.

The United Kingdom is already on order to buy 16 of the UAVs, which are slightly modified from the Sky Guardian concept and go by the name of “Protector.” The U.S. Air Force has no plans to buy Sky Guardian currently, but David Alexander, president of GA’s aircraft systems group, said he is hopeful that U.S. government entities will show more interest in the aircraft over time.

“Having the high rigor in the design and the software, having the all-weather protection, but also having – the key part of this — the sense and avoid that has always been missing on the unmanned side is very key to getting this into the airspace,” he said.

Those upgrades come with a price bump of about 30 percent, at least in the initial phases of the program, but production costs could come down with more volume.

On the morning of Aug. 16, the first MQ-9B prototype flew its first solo transit route through heavily controlled Class A airspace — an event that was made possible by a civil certificate of authorization and waiver through the FAA. The aircraft, called YBC01, departed Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., at 4:40 a.m. local time, flew through Edwards Air Force Base and to General Atomics’ facility in Gray Butte, Calif., where journalists attending the media day were waiting to see it up close.

The UAV only required an escort aircraft in the Class E airspace from Edwards Air Force Base to Gray Butte, about a ten mile stretch, GA officials said.

Automatic takeoff and landing

Currently, operating an MQ-9 Reaper is a three step process. First, aircrews on the ground in theater launch the aircraft using a line of sight datalink. From there, they transfer control of the Reaper to a pilot and sensor operator in a remote location like Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, who fly the aircraft throughout the duration of the mission using a satellite link. Then, when the mission is over, the aircrews deployed overseas regain control of the aircraft to land it.

But GA is developing a satcom-enabled automatic takeoff and landing feature for the MQ-9 that would allow the U.S. military to reduce manpower while operating abroad at forward operating bases, another GA official said. The company plans to demonstrate that capability — part of what GA terms Expeditionary Command and Control or XC2 — this November.

The XC2 software is hosted on a ruggedized laptop. Besides allowing ground crews to launch and recover an aircraft, it also provides instructions on how to do start the aircraft, establish a datalink and do minor maintenance, he said.

Swarming capabilities

Earlier this year GA was awarded a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop low-cost swarming drones called “Gremlins” that could be outfitted with different payloads and provide a disaggregated network of sensors.

Concept art for DARPA's Gremlins program, which seeks to develop small, recoverable swarming UAVs. (General Atomics)
Concept art for DARPA's Gremlins program, which seeks to develop small, recoverable swarming UAVs. (General Atomics)

The benefit is that these small UAV swarms would be able to penetrate into contested areas and provide a variety of capabilities including ISR, electronic warfare, signals intelligence or other kinetic effects that can be used to take down more advanced weapons built by near-peer competitors, a third expert from the company said.

GA is incorporating commercial technology to drive down the cost of the Gremlins, with a goal for each UAV to come in under $500,000 per unit, he said.

One of the goals of the program is to be able to both launch and recover the drones from a larger mothership — in this case, the C-130. To do this, the company has developed two different recovery systems, one that can be mounted on the wings of an aircraft and another on the cargo bay. A company official declined to comment on how many Gremlins could be carried on the wing for competitive reasons.

The Gremlins programs is currently in its second phase, which will culminate in critical design review. Then, DARPA will downselect between GA and its competitor, Dynetics, and the victor will demonstrate recovery of the swarming drones.