The Predator/Gray Eagle Series set a record with over 500,000 hours flown in 2014 – that is over 1,300 hours every day! The Predator B / MQ-9 Reaper set a record with 1 million cumulative flight hours (almost 90% in combat). The press release linked above details the amazing performance statistics for these UAS.
On the other hand, a Predator crashed in Syria Tuesday. Well, we lost contact with it and it is presumed to have crashed. It is the first aircraft lost in the fight against ISIS, but we can be grateful that it was not manned – especially given ISIS’s recent history with hostages. There are certainly moral issues regarding the use of unmanned crafts for strikes, but losing equipment is a lot better than losing an American.
In related news, General Atomics won a $132 million contract modification (this article reports it as a $13.2 contract modification, but I will rely on the DoD website) to supply 19 MQ-1C Gray Eagle MALE UAS, with support equipment, to the Army. The Gray Eagle is an upgrade to the Predator and has a 25 hour endurance, 29,000 ft altitude, and 150 knot top speed. The Gray Eagle is an armed UAS and has triple redundant avionics.
The Coast Guard is also looking to get into the game. They are monitoring options for all platforms of unmanned vehicles – including nautical systems. They have been testing the Boeing ScanEagle, a smaller UAS with a 24 hour entrance but only 7.5 lb payload, and the larger Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout, a rotary wing aircraft with a 600 lb payload. They face two major problems – the lack of aircraft-capable ships and the requirement to follow FAA regulations when operating in the NAS. They are making progress and are looking forward to implementing UAS into their fleet. They are also utilizing a Naval air space on both coasts and have a Concept of Operations.
Finally, this isn’t exactly military, but it isn’t commercial either. NASA announced that it is working to develop a helicopter-style UAS for future exploration of Mars. This will be challenging, because it will have to be able to operate independently – signals take 4 to 20 minutes to arrive from Earth. It would be only 1 kg and operate in conjunction with a ground rover, like Curiosity.
On an unrelated note, a drone was spotted (and recorded) very close to a helicopter in Washington State. It made the top headline on Drudge Report. Unfortunately this is the kind of news that makes the big headlines, and it isn’t the kind that helps the image of UAS. I’m sure even most drone enthusiasts will agree that this was not a safe flight plan by the user.