General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. recently announced their transition to producing the MQ-1C ER Gray Eagle Extended Range drone. The company had been supplying their previous version of the unmanned aircraft to the Army – accumulating more than 290,000 flight hours. The initial Gray Eagle was an upgrade from the original Predator used by the Air Force and CIA.
One of the key advancements in autonomous aircraft is operating range. Extended range capability helps military commanders avoid what has become known as the “blink,” or gap in surveillance data that occurs when one drone has to return to base for fuel, and before a secondary drone can take its place. This need was the genesis for developing the Extended Range Gray Eagle, which will provide nearly 42 hours of flight time, as compared to the current limit of 25 hours.
A key element in building this type of drone has been GA-ASI’s transition to aircraft construction with composite tooling. This investment not only allowed the company to begin production of the new model while simultaneously wrapping up manufacturing of the unit it would be replacing, but composite tooling has offered a number of benefits to aerospace and marine vehicle manufacturers.
The tooling weighs significantly less than its metal counterpart, making it easier to swap in and out of machines. This lighter weight composition also allows for shorter curing and cooling timeframes, which improves production timelines. Also, the materials used to make this tooling are less expensive and easier to use in reproducing additional tools. All of these factors combine to allow for building lighter-weight aircraft faster and cost-effectively.
The first four MQ-1C ERR aircraft are currently under developmental testing, with real-world evaluations planned for next spring. GA-ASI hopes to deliver the first operational models by the summer of 2018.