With MQ-1 Predator UAVs fading from the marketplace as advanced customers turn to the MQ-9 Reaper, General Atomics is moving to broaden the type’s appeal. At IDEX 2011, they announced a Memorandum of Understanding with the UAE’s International Golden Group to offer an RQ-1 “Predator XP” variant to the Emirates, with US government permission to broaden that customer base to “other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.”
General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator UAV has achieved iconic status around the world, but export success has been limited. The Predator XP is designed to break the logjam that has stymied wider sales, and at IDEX 2013, the logjam finally broke. So, what makes the “XP” version different? And why was it necessary in the first place?
Medium ISR: The Predator XP
The Predator’s export problem stems from American military technology export controls, which have prohibited sales beyond America’s circle of close allies. Many other countries have an interest in long-endurance UAVs, however, and an especial market gap exists for Arab countries, who cannot buy or lease MALE (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) designs based on Elbit’s Hermes series, or IAI’s Heron series.
In order to avoid these problems, the Predator XP makes a number of changes. For starters, it won’t be armed. Italy’s MQ-1s could be, but they choose not to do it. In contrast, Predator XPs will reportedly be designed as an unarmed UAV.
A 2nd set of changes involves sensors. Predator XP replaces Raytheon’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System turrets with a FLIR Systems Star SAFIRE 380-HD surveillance turret, or General Atomics’ own Lynx ground-looking radar. The Predator XP and its sensors are still covered by American export restrictions, but those restrictions are looser than they would be with higher-end sensors. GA-ASI representatives have also confirmed to DID that the Predator XP will be surveillance-only like the original RQ-1s, with no weapons integration, in order make exports easier.
On the plus side, that ISR-only change will improve its flight time, by lowering the UAV’s payload weight. Upturned winglets improve efficiency further, and General Atomics has mentioned “up to 40 hours” of endurance.
The last big change from standard MQ-1B Predator UAVs to the Predator XP involves the takeoff and landing system. The USAF insisted on making their R/MQ-1A/B UAVs fully piloted, including takeoff and landing. Even though its operators were all highly qualified officer pilots, flying a UAV introduces some especial complications, and the Predators have had a very high accident rate relative to manned aircraft. The US Army took a different tack, since they wanted their related MQ-1C ER/MP “Gray Eagle” UAVs to be flyable by non-commissioned personnel. As art of that push, they installed an automatic takeoff and landing capability, a feature found on a number of other UAVs. That worked well, and actually led to lower accident rates than the USAF’s birds. Predator XP has adopted this same automated capability.
The other notable weakness of the Predator series has been its data link. Unencrypted downlinks have allowed embarrassing security breaches, like terrorist targets using a laptop, open source SkyGrabber software, and a satellite receiver to receive the UAV’s feeds. Retrofits have been made to American Predator and Reaper UAVs in theater, but encryption is another difficult area for weapons exports. All that General Atomics could say is that:
“[Encryption for] Predator XP will be suited for customer requirements as permitted by the U.S. State Department. We envision leveraging our proven data link technology with added encryption over a period of time.”
Contracts & Key Events
May 27/14: Kazakhstan. IHS Jane’s reports that Kazakhstan has signed an MoU to evaluate the Predator XP, adding that the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Chile were also sales targets:
“A General Atomics spokesperson told IHS Jane’s on 27 May that General Atomics Systems Integration, a subsidiary responsible for defence and aerospace services, had signed the MoU with Kazakhstan’s state-owned defence industrial firm Kazakhstan Engineering (KE) to allow the firm to lease the Predator XP for testing and evaluation in Kazakhstan.”
Note that Chile already has Israeli Hermes 900 UAVs, which are in the same performance class. Sources: IHS Jane’s Defence Industry, “Kazakhstan to evaluate Predator XP”.
Feb 18/13: UAE. The UAE reportedly signs an AED 722 million (about $200 million) deal with International Golden Group for Predator XPs and integrated support. This makes them the type’s 1st customer. Gulfnews.
March 3/11: The USAF accepts delivery of its 268th and last Predator UAV, an MQ-1B, at General Atomics’ Gray Butte Aeronautical Systems’ Flight Ops Facility. The delivery leaves the US Army as the only customer for MQ-1 Predator UAVs (MQ-1C Gray Eagle), unless the RQ-1 Predator XP variant finds some export customers. Wright Patterson AFB.
Feb 23/11: The Predator XP partnership is announced, at IDEX 2011 in the UAE. This announcement does not mean that the UAE has become a customer, just that the marketing partnership is established. Subsequent days would see announcements and reports that add further details re: the platform. See: General Atomics | FLIR Systems | UAE’s The National | Aviation Week | UV Online.