Personnel within the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) have graduated as operators of the Protector RG Mk1 uncrewed aerial system (UAS) after a year of specialised training.

Specifically, 54 Squadron – the advanced air Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) Academy – and 56 Squadron completed the inaugural basic phase course at a training centre in Grand Folks, North Dakota, a facility managed by the original equipment manufacturer of the system, General Atomics (GA).

These crews of Operational Conversion Course (OCU) 1, comprising of pilots, sensor operators, and mission intelligence coordinators conducted extensive ground school training, evaluation of various simulated scenarios in the mission simulators, as well as the live flying of Protector, located in California, via satellite link, under the tuition of GA Instructors.

The course qualified future instructors on the Protector system, while building specific mission scenarios that will form the basis of RAF Protector crew training.

Future OCU training will evaluate the skills required to operate Protector and its equipment, including real-time exploitation of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) activity to find, fix and follow designated targets on the ground, with the crew working in unison to position the air vehicle, and its sensors, to maintain optimum target tracking.

What kind of UAS is Protector?

Protector is an MQ-9B Reaper system, and there is only one unit in the RAF. Although, the service also operates nine MQ-9A systems acquired between 2007 and 2014, according to GlobalData intelligence.

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The MQ-9B is a remotely piloted, medium-altitude long endurance (MALE) UAS. The RAF’s unit is a unique configuration and an enhancement on its predecessor, the Sky Guardian.

Protector will become the world’s first certificated remotely piloted aerial system to fly in non-segregated airspace once it enters service this year. This means that Protector will be able to operate in an aerial environment that is not exclusive to the system, rather airspace that it shares with other aircraft.

This is a significant milestone in UAS technology since it requires advanced software that enables the system to discriminate against adversarial aircraft and avoid collision with other aircraft.

The Protector programme was announced by the UK’s former Prime Minister David Cameron in October 2015. It aims to replace the MQ-9A fleet with 16 Protector UAS.

Recently, in November 2023, Protector successfully flew in the UK for the first time from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Before that, this first system was delivered to the RAF in September that year.