General Atomics' unmanned trans-Atlantic flight makes history

By Patrick C. Miller | July 13, 2018

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. made aviation history when its SkyGuardian remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) took off from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota July 10 and landed a day later at the Fairford Royal Air Force Base in Gloucestershire, U.K.

The SkyGuardian MQ-9B—which GA will sell to the RAF to replace its older Reaper models—became the first medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) RPA to successfully complete a trans-Atlantic flight. The SkyGuardian finished the 3,760-nautical-mile flight on July 11 in 24 hours and 2 minutes with an automated landing at the RAF base.

Alluding to Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis, Doug Brouward, a GA technical director, called the event “a prelude to aviation’s future” just before the SkyGuardian took off July 10 from the U.S. Air Force base west of Grand Forks, North Dakota. “Here we are, a San Diego-based UAV company and we’re going to repeat it—not the exact same route—but we’re going to repeat it crossing the Atlantic in an unmanned aircraft,” he said.

Eric Johnson, GA senior program manager, said the entire flight was executed by four pilots in a ground control station at the company’s Flight Test and Training Center adjacent to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. “The infrastructure we have here is all supporting that flight,” he noted. “It wouldn’t be possible without it.”

Brouward explained that command and control for SkyGuardian was provided through data links from two separate satellites. The SkyGuardian RPA system complies with both civil air worthiness standards and specific U.K. military certification requirements, enabling it to operate in civil airspace for the mission.  

The SkyGuardian has an endurance time of about 48 hours. Its 38-foot fuselage is two feet longer than the Reaper’s and its 79-foot wingspan is 13 feet wider. It’s also GA’s first variant equipped to withstand lightning strikes. The RPA includes room for a detect-and-avoid system GA is developing and testing with NASA and other partners.

Although GA’s Predator, Reaper and SkyGuardian RPAs have been built primarily for military missions, the company is looking toward commercial operations in the future. Brouward said the inclusion of space in the SkyGuardian for a detect-and-avoid system is an indication that GA eventually intends to operate unmanned aircraft in civil airspace.

“Commercial operations have been limited to small UAVs because we’ve been restricted by the FAA from operating in that realm,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to break that open, and this is going to be one of the steps in doing that. As we move on, a type-certified aircraft that can fly in the national airspace system unhindered will be a big deal.”

The GA Testing and Flight Training Facility was built at the Grand Sky UAS Business and Aviation Park next to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Tom Swoyer, Grand Sky Development Co. president, said the SkyGuardian flight from North Dakota to the U.K. demonstrated the site’s capability to control unmanned operations worldwide, as well as the potential for larger unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to fly commercial operations.

“When we start getting our beyond-line-of-sight capability installed—which we hope will be this year—we’ll have the ability to put these types of planes in the air to map not just a farm or two, but also the entire state,” Swoyer said. “We can think about mapping the entire upper Midwest in a single mission. That’s the kind of commercial application we’re looking at.

“Grand Sky was built around the future of unmanned systems in a commercial sense,” he added. “We believe that large UAS will come to dominate the market ultimately. We’ve been building the infrastructure and capability to support that here.”