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General Atomics Readies Drone for European Skies

Drone-maker General Atomics is upgrading the bigger version of its Predator-series unmanned aircraft so it can fly across European skies by 2019, an official said.

The San Diego-based company said the enhanced Predator B -- known in U.S. Air Force parlance as the MQ-9 Reaper -- will be able to soar as high as 50,000 feet for more than 40 hours at a time, thanks to new fuel-economy features such as a 79-foot wingspan and winglets.

What's more, the unmanned system will include a series of modifications designed to make it compliant with European regulations so governments there can quickly certify it for use in their national airspace, according to Christopher Ames, director of international strategic development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

"No one asked us to do this, but we feel the need to be looking ahead," he said during an interview last week at the Paris Air Show, held outside the city at the historic Le Bourget airfield. "It's a big job."

The so-called certifiable Predator B will meet the air worthiness requirements as defined by NATO's Standardized Agreement, or STANAG, 4671 and similar regulations in the U.K., Ames said. It may be available to Italy and the U.K. slightly before 2019.

"Frankly, Europe is ahead of the development of that," he said, referring to the regulations. "The FAA hasn't really come out with something like this yet, but they'll be beneficiaries by looking across the Atlantic."

The certifiable Predator B will include several new features designed to satisfy the NATO regulations, including lightning protection, different composite materials and, most importantly, sense and avoid technology, Ames said.

"For years, we've sort of gone in a circle where the FAA said, 'We're not going to write regulations for sense and avoid of unmanned aircraft until we know what's in the realm of the reasonable.' Industry said, 'we're not going to spend a dime on building anything until we know what the requirements are.' So it's sort of been a standoff," he said. "Our company, on its own dime, has jumped into this and has created a sense and avoid program."

The effort includes using the same type of commercial equipment found in passenger airlines, including the Terminal Collision and Avoidance System (TCAS) and Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADSB), to identify "cooperative" aircraft -- those that emit electronic information defining their place in space, heading and speed, Ames said.

"The pilot who is sitting in the ground control station will get a display that offers recommendations to ensure safe separation of aircraft, and he can follow that recommendation and pass without issue," he said. "And if the pilot is distracted and doesn't take action, the aircraft will automatically execute a maneuver to ensure safe separation."

The sense and avoid program will also include an air-to-air due regard radar to avoid non-cooperative aircraft such as a balloon, glider or small aircraft that isn't emitting information, Ames said.

"We're sharing this information with FAA, NASA and other strategic partners to help inform what is in the realm of the capable and what should be a guide to a development of the rules," he said.

The company also said it plans to complete a deal this year to sell the Predator XP to the United Arab Emirates, open a training academy for drone pilots by 2016, and market new sensor kits for existing Predator B aircraft to better conduct maritime patrol missions.

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