The UK’s first Protector RG Mk1 remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) has made its maiden flight.

The flight marks the latest milestone for the Protector RPAS programme following the UK Ministry of Defence awarding a £65m contract to General Atomics – Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) to build the first three aircraft.

The maiden flight took place on 25 September in the US under the control of General Atomics staff.

Commenting on the flight, defence minister Jeremy Quin said: “The inaugural flight of the UK’s first Protector is an exciting and welcome step in the development of our ground-breaking fleet.

“With increased range and endurance, greater ISR and weapons capacity and improved weather resilience, Protector will play a vital intelligence and deterrent role in countering future threats.”

Protector is set to replace the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) fleet of Reaper uncrewed aerial systems (UAS), the new Protector RPAS are billed by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) as a ‘step change’ in its capabilities.

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By GlobalData

The aircraft will be able to be flown anywhere in the world from a home base at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. The first aircraft are expected to be in service by mid-2024.

Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) CEO Sir Simon Bollom said: “The maiden flight of the UK’s first Protector aircraft is yet another important step in this significant programme, which will see a truly cutting-edge capability delivered to the RAF.

“The committed DE&S team involved have worked collaboratively with industry to overcome considerable challenge and ensure this project remains on schedule.”

The first of the RAF’s Protector RPAS will stay in the US to support testing under a combined MOD, US Air Force (USAF) and GA-ASI test team.

After testing is complete the aircraft is expected to be delivered to the RAF in the summer of 2021, however, the Protector RPAS will again stay in the US to complete air force testing and evaluations.

The MOD contract for the first three aircraft includes an option to order a further 13 aircraft bringing the total fleet to 16.

The MOD has said that the planned Protector fleet ‘will more than double the capability currently provided by Reaper’.

A key feature of Protector is its ability to fly in non-segregated airspace shared by commercial air traffic, which sets it apart from some other UAS.

The aircraft will primarily be used for Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations, with the MOD adding that the system could also be used to support civilian agencies if requested.

The aircraft can fly for 40 hours once airborne.

The RAF’s Director Air ISTAR Programmes Group Captain Shaun Gee added: “Protector will be deployed in wide-ranging Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations where its ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours will offer a vastly improved ISTAR capability.

“Given that it is designed to fly in non-segregated, civil airspace, the Protector RPAS will be able to respond rapidly and offer flexibility, delivering many types of military or civil authority support missions, including search and rescue.”

The aircraft can also be equipped with precision strike weapons including MBDA’s Brimstone missile and Raytheon UK’s Paveway IV laser-guided bomb.