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RAF flies Protector in UK airspace for first time

The first flight of the Protector RG1 in UK airspace saw the unmanned aircraft fly within the confines of the airspace over RAF Waddington, and under full human control. (Crown Copyright)

The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) has flown for the first time in national airspace the recently received General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) MQ-9B Protector RG1 medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

The milestone was announced by the service on 17 November, with the first flight understood to have taken place some days earlier.

“Achieving the first flight of Protector in UK Airspace is a fitting milestone for this phase of testing,” Group Captain Al Rutledge, RAF programme director for Protector, was quoted as saying. “We will now build on this success and look forward to the next test and evaluation phase as part of our preparations for the in-service date later next year.”

As noted in the announcement, the first flight took place within the airspace of the type's future home operating base of RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, and saw the air vehicle controlled at all times by a pilot on the ground.

The Protector is the UK-specific variant of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, which is also known as the SeaGuardian in its dedicated maritime fit. Besides intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike, the RAF envisions a range of roles for the Protector that would include civil support in the UK and maritime awareness at home and abroad.

With an in-service date of 2024, operational flying by 13 and 31 squadrons is scheduled to commence in 2025. Full operating capability is scheduled for 2026.

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