General Atomics sets UAS record with flight in civilian airspace

By Patrick C. Miller | September 27, 2017

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. last month flew a 1,075-nautical mile round trip—the longest by an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in Class A civilian airspace—from its new Flight Test and Training Center near Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The flight was made by a General Atomics Block 5 MQ-9 Predator under a Certificate of Authorization (COA) granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The COA authorized the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) to fly in airspace managed by air traffic controllers without the requirement of a chase airplane.

“This flight signified several firsts for us and for the industry,” said David Alexander, General Atomics president of aircraft systems. “As we continue to demonstrate our ability to fly RPA safely alongside passenger planes, we further our efforts towards certifying the aircraft and increasing their mission possibilities in Class A civilian airspace.”

The company said this was also the first time an unmanned aircraft operated through multiple spot beams of a high-throughput satellite (HTS). HTS is a new generation of satellites providing higher data throughput and interference mitigation. As an RPA’s mission distance increases, it needs to smoothly transition from one satellite beam to another. For this flight, the Predator communicated with two HTS beams.

General Atomics completed the new 24,000-square foot, $30 million permanent hangar for its training center in Grand Forks on Aug. 21. The new hangar replaced the temporary facility that had been in operation since June 2016. The new facility houses General Atomics operational hardware, including three Predators and ground control stations, as well as offices and conference rooms.

In addition to conducting flight tests from its facility at the Grand Sky UAS Business and Aviation Park next to the Grand Forks Air Force Base, General Atomics operates an office building near the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks. It features classrooms and a Predator mission aircrew training system for accomplishing the academic and simulator segments of training.