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USAF eyes satcom terminal integration on Reaper UAS

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line as the sun sets at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, on 20 November 2019. (US Air Force)

The US Air Force (USAF) is looking to demonstrate an expanded satellite communications (satcom) capability, leveraging satcom terminals integrated aboard the air service's MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft system (UAS).

Service officials from AFWERX, a directorate within the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), inked a technology development deal with CesiumAstro to integrate the company's Ka-band satcom terminal into the Reaper aircraft, according to a 16 June statement by the company. The USD3.6 million deal was financed through the air force's Tactical Funding Increase (TACFI) programme, company officials said, noting CesiumAstro would be tasked with construction, integration, testing, and demonstration of the satcom system planned for the modified MQ-9.

Specifically, company engineers will modify to scale a variant of its active electronically scanned array (AESA) satcom terminal “to fit the size, weight, and power requirements of a Group 5 unmanned aerial system”, the statement said.

Planned demonstrations of the modified satcom terminal mounter aboard the Reaper UAS will be used to determine “connectivity benefits” of the airborne, integrated satcom terminal with commercial service providers, CesiumAstro officials said in the statement.

“The [USAF] award directly supports the Department of Defense's need to enhance higher throughput connectivity aboard airborne vehicles” and coincides with plans by CesiumAstro's planned live flight demonstration of its satcom terminal platform aboard an Airbus commercial aircraft scheduled for late 2023, company officials said.

Both the Reaper integration project and the Airbus flight demonstration “will demonstrate complementary capabilities [and] showcase both the scalability and dual-use nature” of the company's AESA-based terminal.

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