Air Force to upgrade Reaper drone fleet as the Predator begins retirement

By James LaPorta  |  Jan. 4, 2018 at 1:37 PM
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Jan. 4 (UPI) -- General Atomics has been awarded a contract by the U.S. Air Force for Block 5 kits for the MQ-9 Reaper, just as the U.S. military begins to phase out the MQ-1 Predator drone.

The contract was announced Wednesday by the Department of Defense, tapping General Atomics for Block 5 kits, in addition to other services worth more than $14.1 million under a cost-plus-fixed-fee and firm-fixed-price undefinitized contract action, which is a modification on a previously awarded contract.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a significantly upgraded version of the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, which is primarily used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

The drones are also considered one of the primary weapons in U.S. counter terrorism strategy as both the Predator and the Reaper have strike capabilities, usually carrying a payload of AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles.

Block 5 kits for the MQ-9 Reaper increase electrical power and provide secure communications between the Joint Terminal Attack Controller, or forward observer, and the UAV crew made up of a drone pilot and sensor operator, as well as the mission intelligence coordinator.

Additionally, the Block 5 kits substantially upgrade the Reaper's onboard mechanisms, especially concerning power sources for communication and operation. The Block 5 kits have an upgraded electrical system with a backup generator that can support multiple flying conditions.

Still, the greatest advantage the Block 5 Reaper has over the older Reaper models, or even the MQ-1 Predator, is its ability to carry more fuel and a heavier payload, according to General Atomics.

The contract also includes, "extended-range kits, beyond-line-of-sight kits and Barrett Asymmetrical Digital Datalink Computer Routers," which is an advanced technology that provides a higher, continuously-available bandwidth for transmitting digital information.

The higher bandwidth is required to eliminate latency -- the delay that occurs in data being transmitted from the drone -- on transmissions such as full-motion video.

In order for pilots in the United States to see video, data must be sent to satellites orbiting Earth, which then makes its way back down to a transmitter in Germany, then travels through fiber-optic cable extending through western Europe and under the Atlantic Ocean to the United States where it arrives at a base such as Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where both Predators and Reapers have been piloted from.

The U.S. military has long planned the retirement of the MQ-1 Predator in favor of an all-MQ-9 Reaper fleet. The Air Force explained their reasoning to retire the Predator in February 2017, noting that the more modern MQ-9 Reaper has been better equipped with superior features and operational capabilities.

Work on Block 5 kits for the contract will occur in Poway, Calif, and is expected to be completed by February 2021.

More than $1.1 million will be obligated to General Atomics at the time of award from fiscal 2017 procurement funds, the Pentagon said.

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