General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. has developed a new version of its Predator unmanned aircraft — one that can operate in environments that don’t easily support other GA-ASI aircraft.
The new, remotely piloted craft sports heavy-duty landing gear and is capable of short takeoffs and landings. It can reportedly work with 1,000 feet of unimproved runway surfaces. If operated as a reconnaissance aircraft, with minimal fuel and no weapons, it can take off with as little as 400 feet of runway.
By contrast, a mission-capable GA-ASI aircraft currently in the Pentagon inventory needs 3,000 feet of runway or more.
The new model is also built for more destructive power, with the capacity to carry up to 16 Hellfire missiles. The main unmanned aerial system that GA-ASI builds for the U.S. Army carries four Hellfire missiles.
General Atomics Aeronautical said the new craft is ideal for special operations missions around the world.
“To date, we’ve invested more than $20 million in company research dollars on building out this prototype, because we believe the need is there and the interest will follow,” company spokesman Mark Brinkley said in an email.
Built For Harsh Environments
The new model is called Mojave, a nod to the desert region over the mountains from Los Angeles, where GA-ASI maintains a private airport to test its aircraft. Other companies build and test advanced aircraft nearby at Palmdale and Edwards Air Force Base. The Mojave name is meant to evoke a harsh and austere environment.
GA-ASI publicly introduced the aircraft on Dec. 9, reporting that it first flew its Mojave prototype in the summer.
The aircraft “is continuing to demonstrate exceptional short-field performance and other unique qualities,” the company said in a statement.
“We’re proud to bring these extraordinary capabilities to our Predator line of UAS,” said GA-ASI CEO Linden P. Blue. “We are providing the ground force with a long-endurance, armed overwatch UAS that can quickly reload weapons at austere sites, located close to the conflict zone. This revolutionary design, based on 7 million flight hours of UAS experience, increases expeditionary employment options — making Mojave a real game changer.”
UAS is short for unmanned aircraft system.
“Mojave showcases General Atomics Aeronautical’s rapid prototyping capabilities,” Brinkley said. Development progressed from a conceptual design in 2018 to first flight in July.
A Special Operations Solution?
As yet, GA-ASI has not announced a customer for the aircraft. Brinkley said the company plans to offer it to the U.S. Department of Defense and international customers.
It bills the aircraft as an “armed overwatch” solution.
The public introduction of Mojave comes as the U.S. Special Operations Command continues evaluating several small aircraft for a program named Armed Overwatch. All of those aircraft carry pilots. Whatever product the command chooses would replace the U-28 Draco aircraft. Companies vying to supply the new aircraft include L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Textron Aviation Defense, according to news reports.
National Defense magazine reports the Air Force Special Operations Command wants an aircraft model that is already commercially available. The command wants to buy 75 aircraft for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as close air support for commandoes, starting as early as fiscal 2022.
“Mojave outranges, out-endures and outshoots any small, human-crewed turboprop aircraft in the armed overwatch role,” GA-ASI marketing materials say.
Prior to Mojave’s public debut, some in the military pushed for a well-established GA-ASI product, the unmanned MQ-9A Reaper, to be one more choice for the Armed Overwatch program.
GA-ASI’s Dec. 9 announcement also held out the possibility that Mojave could operate from an aircraft carrier deck.
Built to Loiter
Human beings operate aircraft such as Mojave or Reaper by remote control. Often pilots are thousands of miles away, working in a ground station built by GA-ASI. Such ground stations resemble aircraft cockpits.
Military clients use General Atomics Aeronautical aircraft to loiter over their targets. Like other GA-ASI products, Mojave can spend more than 25 hours in the air, collecting video or radar imagery. A longer mission, however, requires a longer runway, since the aircraft must get off the ground with the weight of enough fuel to keep it airborne for that length of time.
“The nicer the airfield, the longer the runway, the more Mojave can do — but special operations forces often don’t get to go [to] nice places,” said GA-ASI marketing materials. “Sometimes all they have is a grass strip in a jungle clearing, or a stretch of sand, or a dry lakebed.”
Frequently pilots loiter in one spot while waiting for the opportune time to shoot a missile.
Like other GA-ASI aircraft, Mojave uses a rear-facing propeller. In this case, it is powered by a Rolls Royce M250 turboprop engine generating 450 horsepower.
Mojave’s wings are distinctive, noticeably bulkier and stubbier than those of the Reaper flown by the U.S. Air Force.
General Atomics Aeronautical typically develops its aircraft using its own funds, and that was the case with Mojave. The approach benefits the company. GA-ASI, rather than government clients, owns the intellectual property related to the aircraft.
GA-ASI builds its aircraft in its sprawling factory in Poway. It works closely with the U.S. Department of Defense but it has clients elsewhere in the world, particularly Europe.
GA-ASI is an affiliate of La Jolla-based General Atomics. The business is one of North County’s largest employers. It is privately held and does not disclose revenue.
In addition to building aircraft, GA-ASI builds sensors that collect imagery from the aircraft.
The business also provides logistics support for its customers, often under annual contracts.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
CEO: Linden P. Blue
BUSINESS: Maker of remotely piloted aircraft and subsystems
EMPLOYEES: More than 9,000
NOTABLE: The Smithsonian Institution calls the company’s Predator aircraft “a drone that transformed military combat”