General Atomics new SkyGuardian has commercial potential

By Patrick C. Miller | February 02, 2017

The new SkyGuardian variant of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Predator B unmanned aircraft system (UAS) represents more than an upgraded model of the company’s familiar aircraft.

Brandon Suarez, General Atomics technical director for UAS civil airspace integration, noted that the SkyGuardian has a longer fuselage and a redesigned nose to accommodate an air-to-air radar that adds detect-and-avoid capabilities. It’s also been designed for all-weather flying.

According to Suarez, General Atomics is currently working on two type certification projects for the SkyGuardian with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“It’s really the key step to operating in civilian airspace, even as a military user,” he explained. “We’re working with them to basically get a type design certificate and production certificate that would allow us to operate the system as a commercial entity in the United States for civilian and commercial missions.”

Although the process is currently in the early stages, Suarez said it will create commercial opportunities not only for General Atomics, but also for other UAS manufacturers.

“We see a tremendous opportunity in terms of the civilian and commercial missions that would be enabled by SkyGuardian as an aircraft that could be seamlessly integrated into the national airspace and operate over low- to medium-population densities and in low-complexity airspace,” he said.

The addition of the radar for detect-and-avoid capabilities will enable the SkyGuardian to fly in non-segregated Class D, E and G airspace without the need for a chase plane, restricted airspace or temporary flight restrictions, providing greater operational flexibility, Suarez said

SkyGuardian is the result of a five-year long company-funded effort to deliver a UAS that can operate under the stringent airworthiness requirements of non-military airspace. It has more than 35 hours of endurance with airspeeds up to 242 miles per hour, reaching altitudes above 45,000 feet.   

“The SkyGuardian name reflects the system’s role in protecting ground forces, as well as its performance of non-military missions like border-surveillance, maritime patrol, and relief over-watch in cases of natural disaster,” said Linden Blue, General Atomics CEO.

The company recently unveiled the SkyGuardian as a type-certifiable version of its Predator B before an audience on international dignitaries from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Australia, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.

To facilitate qualification testing, General Atomics is building three company-owned aircraft, along with two airframes designed specifically for full-scale fatigue and static testing to satisfy type-certification requirements. It plans to deliver the first production aircraft in 2018.

The aircraft can be equipped with a variety of sensor and communications payloads and is capable of transmitting high-resolution video to manned aircraft and ground forces. The maritime patrol variant—designated SeaGuardian—is designed to support open-ocean and littoral surface surveillance for border patrol, coast guard, and disaster relief missions.