Oct. 10 (UPI) -- General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. announced Tuesday that the company has officially transitioned its production line from the MQ-1C Gray Eagle to its new long-range variant, the MQ-1C ER Gray Eagle Extended Range.
The transition comes after GA-ASI completed the last contracted MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial system, which has been delivered to 12 U.S. Army operational units and has accumulated more than 290,000 flight hours.
The MQ-1C is the Army's most active kinetic platform and has been a major tool in U.S. counterterrorism strategy since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The aircraft was upgraded from the original General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, which was used primarily in joint operations between the U.S. Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency.
"We are proud of our many years of effort to complete the factory build of 165 MQ-1C Gray Eagles for the U.S. Army," David R. Alexander, president of Aircraft Systems at GA-ASI, said in a press release. "We're now focused on delivering the Gray Eagle ER and believe its endurance and other improved capabilities will be a game changer on the battlefield."
GA-ASI has shifted it's interest into investing in airframe composite tooling, which has enabled the company to start manufacturing the MQ-1C ER ahead of schedule, with production running at the same time as the MQ-1C line.
The new MQ-1C ER UAS will be capable of long range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations known as ISR missions, in addition to aiding in communications relay and the delivery of weapons to assist ground forces.
The greatest advantage the MQ-1C ER will have over current UAS platforms is its consecutive flight hours. GA-ASI said that in a recent endurance test flight, the new long range drone flew for 41.9 hours, significantly more than the 25-hour capability of the current Gray Eagle.
This new long range operational capability helps military commanders overcome a common challenge in drone warfare known as "blink" -- when one drone has to return to base for a lack of fuel or inclement weather and the additional absence of a secondary drone occurs to replace the first one during operations.
The first four MQ-1C ER aircraft are under developmental testing that will lead to follow-on operational test and evaluation in spring 2018. GA-ASI expects delivery of the new MQ-1C ERs by summer 2018.