The US Air Force (USAF) Life Cycle Management Center has awarded a foreign military sales contract to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) for the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) MQ-9B Protector unmanned aircraft system programme.

Valued at $81m, the contract includes scope for integration and component level testing for UK-specific upgrades that would support the MQ-9B Protector programme.

About two years ago, GA-ASI carried out the first flight of the MQ-9B configuration and since then the aircraft has continued to reach a series of major qualification milestones.

The future aircraft qualification milestones include lightning protection tests, which are expected to be conducted within the next two months.

With the completion of the upgrade, the MQ-9B remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) will be capable of flying more than 40 hours with airspeeds up to 210k.

The aircraft will also be able to fly at altitudes of more than 40,000ft and carry 4,750lb (2,159kg) of external payload.

“The aircraft will also be able to fly at altitudes of more than 40,000ft and carry 4,750lb (2,159kg) of external payload.”

The MQ-9B Protector aircraft is being developed under a company-funded project that would continue for five years. MQ-9B is the modified version of the multi-mission Predator B aircraft fleet.

The project aims to deliver an RPA that can meet the strict airworthiness certification requirements of several military and civil authorities, including the UK Military Airworthiness Authority (MAA) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

GA-ASI chief executive officer Linden Blue said: “MQ-9B represents the next generation of RPA system capabilities.

“It has demonstrated new airborne endurance records (>48 hours) and automatic take-offs and landings under satellite communications (SATCOM) only control.

“MQ-9B will also have our currently operational MQ-9 detect and avoid system (with collision-avoidance radar), which will support MQ-9B operations in civil airspace.”

A weaponised variant of RPA system is currently being acquired by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) under the country’s MQ-9B Protector programme.