The contractor for the famed MQ-9 Reaper has announced that it conducted successful test flights with retrofits designed to increase the unmanned aircraft’s endurance.
The retrofits for the Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper Extended Range (ER) Long Wing, as General Atomics calls it, include a 13-foot wingspan extension that takes the expanse of its wings to 79 feet, greater internal fuel capacity and hard points for carrying external stores. The improvements will increase the Reaper’s flight endurance from 27 hours to 40 hours, General Atomics said in a release. Other improvements include short-field takeoff and landing performance and spoilers on the wings to enable precision automatic landings.
“Predator B ER’s new 79-foot wing span not only boosts the RPA’s endurance and range, but also serves as proof-of-concept for the next-generation Predator B aircraft that will be designed for Type-Certification and airspace integration,” said Linden Blue, CEO of General Atomics. “The wing was designed to conform to STANAG 4671 [NATO Airworthiness Standard for RPA systems], and includes lightning and bird strike protection, non-destructive testing, and advanced composite and adhesive materials for extreme environments.”
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The Pentagon has closed a drone base in Africa and moved the unmanned aircraft to other locations as it strains to cope with a surge in demand for drones from military commanders fighting the Islamic State and other militant groups.
The U.S. military has stopped flying unarmed Reaper drones from an airfield in Ethiopia that had served as a key hub since 2011 for collecting surveillance on al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda affiliate in neighboring Somalia, U.S. officials said.
U.S. troops and contractors packed up the Reaper drones and dismantled their small base of operations in the southern city of Arba Minch in September. But the move was kept quiet until last weekend, when U.S. diplomats confirmed it in a report by an Ethiopian news website.
U.S. officials were vague about why they decided to end the drone flights. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, a spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command, said the United States and Ethiopia “reached a mutual decision that our presence in Arba Minch is not required at this time.”
Katherine Diop, a spokeswoman at the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital, added in an email that “it is important to know that our presence in Arba Minch was never meant to be permanent.” A spokesman for the Ethiopian embassy in Washington did not return a phone call seeking comment.
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The Air Force wants to vastly expand its drone program over the next five years by doubling the number of pilots and deploying them to bases around the country to give commanders better intelligence and more firepower.
Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base — which stands to lose its biggest mission amid efforts to retire the A-10 ground-attack jet — is mentioned as a possible site for expanded drone operations.
Besides Davis-Monthan, those considered most likely sites for the program include Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, California; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam near Honolulu; and Langley Air Force Base near Newport News, Virginia.
The $3 billion drone expansion plan, which must be approved by Congress, was unveiled Thursday after months of study that focused on a drone pilot force that commanders have described as overworked, undermanned and under appreciated.
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