General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, once known as the Predator B, is an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV that was created by the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) for the United States Air Force. Air Force members refer to the MQ-9 and other UAVs, also known as drones, as Remotely Piloted Vehicles/Aircraft (RPV/RPA) because humans can control them, but they are capable of autonomous flight as well. This hunter-killer drone is the first of its kind that can be used for long-endurance high-altitude surveillance missions.

General Atomics developed the prototype of the Reaper, known as the Predator B, as a proof-of-concept aircraft. It took its first flight in February of 2001 using an AlliedSignal Garrett AiResearch TPE-331-10T turboprop engine. This model, known as the B-001, was capable of flying at an altitude of fifty thousand feet and could carry a payload of up to 750 pounds. After this version was created, the Air Force ordered one B-001 model and one B-002 model, which had a Williams FJ44-2A turbofan engine and could carry up to 475 pounds. A third version of the reaper, known as the B-003 or the Altair, was developed with the same TP-331-10T turboprop engine of the B-001, but it can carry a payload of up to three thousand pounds.

The contract between General Atomics and the United States Air Force was signed in 2001, after which the Air Force acquired the B-001 and B-002 models of the Predator B in 2002. The Air Force chose not to use the name Altair for the second model, calling it the Predator B until its current name, the Reaper, was adopted. The B-003 version, which is unarmed, was given the name Altair by NASA.

The design of a typical Reaper system includes multiple satellites, ground control stations, aircraft, and maintenance and flight crews, which are all crucial to the efficiency of the machine. The armed versions can carry about 3,800 pounds of weapons, including 500-lb laser-guided bomb units and hellfire missiles and is capable of flying for fourteen hours at full weight capacity. It can maintain flight at 50,000 feet above sea level and it is capable of both surveillance and attack at this height. Ground control units, like those located near Las Vegas at the Creech Air Force Base, can use the reaper’s many sensors, including thermal sensors, to locate targets and observe details of a landscape.

The Air Force thought that having Predator B’s would bring more efficiency and options to missions, especially those involved with locating a target. Soldiers working in shifts can fly the RPV during the day and night. This makes finding a target easier than when using manned aircraft. By 2010, the Air Force owned fifty-seven Reapers and had planned to purchase 272 more.

In more recent years, the Reaper has undergone different tests and upgrades. In 2012, General Atomics announced many upgrades for the typical Reaper including a trailing arm for the landing gear that gives the UAV a maintenance-free shock absorber and Anti-lock Brake System enhancements. In April of that same year, General Atomic announced that Air Force versions of the Reaper could be upgraded with two fuel pods that would be placed under the wings, expansions to the wings that would make the eighty-eight feet in length, and heavyweight landing gear. These upgrades could give the Reaper a forty-two hour constant flight time. A reaper owned by a company confirmed its capabilities in electronic warfare at Marine Corp Air Station (MCAS) Yuma. The test was designed to see whether the reaper, equipped with a digital receiver/exciter and a jamming device, could disrupt the electronic platforms of enemies. The test also included twenty other aircraft and all parts of the test were accomplished successfully. Similar tests in the future will focus on more complicated tests involving other types of UAV’s and EA-6B Prowlers.

The first completed mission of the Reaper occurred in 2007, the same year that the Air Force claimed a “first kill” with the machine. Since that year, reapers have completed many missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. In 2009, the soldier flying a Reaper in a mission in Afghanistan was forced to run the drone into a mountainside after a malfunction caused it to lose control. Although these drones are known to be very reliable, by 2010, the Air Force had lost forty-seven of them in missions and test flights. Reapers have been used in non-war situations as well, with NASA’s Altair version known for recovering images of the southern California fires in 2007, which helped map the dangerous fires, and others used by government agencies, like the US Customs and Border Protection for national defense. Some of these Reapers are made specifically for these agencies, like the maritime versions that the Navy and U.S. Customs and Border Protection use. Other countries have used reapers as well including Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Image Caption: CBP Air and Marine group conduct aerial operations with their UAS aircraft over areas affected by Hurricane Ike to help broadly assess damage so as to better deploy rescuers to specific areas with the most need. Credit: Gerald L Nino/Wikipedia