San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) partners with the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), unveiling plans for an Airborne Battlespace Awareness and Defense (ABAD) pod designed to fortify the MQ-9A’s survivability against emerging threats.

In a bid to improve battlefield resilience and bolster the protective capabilities of the MQ-9A Block 5 Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance Tactical (MALET) Extended Range Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), GA-ASI and USSOCOM have embarked on a collaboration. The focus is developing an Airborne Battlespace Awareness and Defense (ABAD) pod.

This ABAD pod is poised to improve threat detection and protection, particularly against the spectres of Radio Frequency (RF) and Infrared (IR) threats. By leveraging technology, the ABAD pod aims to enhance the MQ-9A’s threat awareness capabilities and empower it to navigate contested environments with agility and resilience.

In 2022, GA-ASI conducted a successful flight test of the Nato pod, specially designed for the MQ-9A remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). The Nato pod meets stringent Nato airworthiness standards and offers additional payload options and configurations for the MQ-9A and MQ-9B SkyGuardian RPAs. 

“Threat awareness and survivability are critical for MQ-9A to operate in contested environments,” emphasized GA-ASI President David R. Alexander. “ABAD will enable the tracking of RF and IR missile threats, enable defensive measures, and real-time threat awareness for MQ-9A.”

The genesis of this project involved an evaluation of RF Electronic Warfare (EW) and IR countermeasures systems. Following a selection process, GA-ASI zeroed in on a next-generation software-defined radio-based EW system from BAE Systems and the AN/AAQ-45 Distributed Aperture Infrared Countermeasure System (DAIRCM) from Leonardo DRS.

“BAE Systems’ advancements in small form factor EW technologies will provide affordable multifunction capabilities for the MQ-9A, enabling it to operate in previously inaccessible airspace,” affirmed Joshua Niedzwiecki, vice president and general manager of Electronic Combat Solutions at BAE Systems.

Echoing this sentiment, David Snodgrass, Vice President of the DAIRCM Program at Leonardo DRS, expressed enthusiasm about the collaboration, stating, “Leonardo DRS is delighted to team with GA-ASI to provide our industry-leading and proven AN/AAQ-45 DAIRCM aircraft protection system to enhance MQ-9A survivability in support of this mission for USSOCOM.”

Work is underway on an engineering and testing effort to mature the ABAD capability into a podded payload capable of integration and operation on the MQ-9A aircraft by 2025. 

GA-ASI has made strides in advancing unmanned aviation capabilities in recent years, with achievements across various partnerships and contracts. GA-ASI has collaborated with the US Marine Corps (USMC), Spain’s MQ-9A fleet, the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) and the UK Royal Air Force (RAF).