General Atomics’ Unmanned Predator Aircraft Goes Domestic with New Missions
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on the wings only after he had to repeatedly increase the throttle to maintain a constant altitude.
I also checked in with GA Aeronautical Systems to hear the latest on new front in Predator’s domestic service. “They’re finding more and more uses for the airplane,” says Tom Cassidy, president of the company’s Aircraft Systems Group. He told me yesterday that Predators have been flying over wildfires for NASA and gathering scientific data for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, flew a Predator into a hurricane for the first time in September to survey flood levees, support search and rescue operations, and to inspect oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. “So we’ve expanded this thing quite a bit,” Cassidy says.
The company also keeps updating the drone’s surveillance equipment. Cassidy says the second-generation Predator Bs are now equipped with high-definition TV cameras, electro-optics, and an advanced synthetic aperture radar made by General Atomics that can penetrate smoke and cloud cover. Cassidy says the company also has developed a new 360-degree maritime radar for a Predator specially modified for open-ocean surveillance, which the CBP will get for offshore duty.
From their new base in Grand Forks, CBP personnel will operate the remotely piloted MQ-9 Predator B, which can remain aloft for more than 18 hours at altitudes up to 50,000 feet. Kostelnik says the aircraft’s infrared sensors should work well for detecting people in the cold climate, but he’s less sure how well the radar can see through heavily forested areas. “Those are the things that you have to go up and explore,” he says.
The CBP’s lone Predator in North Dakota is intended to fly a remote, 230-mile stretch of the US-Canadian border. Kostelnik says the sparsely populated region was chosen so flight operations can be worked out with lower risk to civilians, and because North Dakota’s political leadership and populace are strongly supportive of CBP’s border control mission.