The turboprop-powered Predator B, designated MQ-9B by the US Air Force and referred to as the Hunter-Killer, flies faster, higher and carries more weapons than the Predator. The Honeywell TP331-10 engine, producing 950 shp, provides a maximum airspeed of 260 kts and a cruise speed for maximum endurance of 150-170 kts. The MQ-9B can carry a payload mix of 1,500 lb. on each of its two inboard weapons stations, 500-600 lb. on the two middle stations and 150-200 lb. on the outboard stations.
The first production MQ-9B had been built by late 2002, at which time three more were under construction, with 3-4 to follow in 2003 and full production of 9-15/year to be reached in 2004.
Another version of the Predator B, with a 20-ft. wing extension, started flying in late 2002. The standard MQ-9, at a takeoff weight of 10,000 lb., can carry 3,000 lb. of payload and 3,000 lb. of fuel. With no exterior stores, it could stay aloft for 32 hr. at an altitude of more than 50,000 ft. The version with the wingspan extended to 86 ft., about the same as a 737 airliner, can carry 34 hr. of internal fuel. With two 1,000-lb. drop tanks and 1,000 lb. of weapons it can fly a 42-hr. mission. Payloads can vary, but a favorite is the steadily upgrading Lynx synthetic aperture radar with a range of about 15 mi. even through clouds and rain.
Weapons planned the MQ-9A Predator B include the AGM-114 Hellfire II laser-guided air-to-surface missile to attack stationary ground targets. By the end of 2003 the Air Force intends to evaluate Raytheon's FIM-92 Stinger missile in the air-to-air role. By 2005 the Air Force plans to add the GBU-38 500 lb Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). The service then intends to integrate the 500 lb GBU-12 laser-guided bomb with the air vehicle. Other direct-attack weapons such as Raytheon's AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missile remain options, while air-to-air weapons like Raytheon's AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile may also be evaluated at some point.
The fifth Predator B was completed in June 2004 and a sharp increase in output was expected afterwards. The current configuration has a length of 36 feet and a wingspan of 68 feet. It was not reported whether or not the extended wingspan version would enter into service.
The radar system on the Predator B also represents an upgrade over the Predator A. Since the Predator B is expected to act as a strike vehicle, a better targeting radar was developed by General Atomics in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories. The new radar system is known as Lynx synthetic aperture radar. Not only does the new radar have 4-inch imagery resolution, it can also zoom. It allows the Predator B to accomplish its ground-imaging role even in poor conditions. Also, the targeting system was replaced with the 22-inch Raytheon MTS-B gimbal. This new system works at longer ranges than the previous 17-inch Multi-Spectral Targeting System camera gimbal.
NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center has partnered with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., (GA-ASI) to demonstrate technologies that will expand the capabilities of remotely operated, uninhabited aircraft to perform high-altitude earth science missions. To accomplish the task, GA-ASI is developing an enlarged version of its Predator reconnaissance aircraft, the Predator B®, including an extended-wingspan Altair version for NASA, to meet these requirements.
GA-ASI's task under NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) Joint Sponsored Research Agreement calls for the San Diego firm to develop and demonstrate technical performance and operational capabilities that will meet the needs of the science community. As joint partners in the project, which covers flight validation as well as development of the aircraft, NASA's Office of Aerospace Technology is investing approximately $10 million, while GA-ASI is contributing additional funds, with about $8 million earmarked for the Altair project.
NASA's Office of Earth Science established a stringent set of requirements for the conventionally powered, remotely or autonomously operated aircraft. Among these requirements were a mission endurance of 24 to 48 hours at a primary altitude range of 40,000 to 65,000 feet with a payload of at least 660 lb. (300 kg). Another key requirement is to develop the capability and operational procedures to allow operations from conventional airports without conflict with piloted aircraft. In addition, the Altair will have to demonstrate "over-the-horizon" command and control beyond line-of-sight radio capability via a satellite link, "see-and-avoid" operation in unrestricted airspace and the ability to communicate with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) controllers. The aircraft will also have to meet all FAA airworthiness and maintenance standards.
The first Predator B prototype uninhabited air vehicle (UAV) is powered by a Honeywell TPE-331-10T turboprop engine, derated to 700 shaft horsepower, driving a rear-mounted three-blade controllable-pitch propeller. The Predator B is 36 feet long and has a wingspan of 64 feet, about 16 feet longer than the Predator. It is distinguished from its smaller cousin by its Y-shaped tail, with a ventral vertical fin. It is designed for a maximum gross takeoff weight of 6,400 lbs. The first turbine-powered aircraft built by GA-ASI, the Predator B is designed to fly as long as 25 hours at up to 200 knots indicated airspeed at altitudes as high as 45,000 feet, while carrying payloads of up to 750 lbs. The aircraft are designed to meet Federal Air Regulations Part 23 requirements.
The first Predator B prototype-aircraft 001-logged its first flight Feb. 2, 2001 from the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) flight operations facility at El Mirage, Calif. After an initial series of airworthiness test flights and downtime for various software and systems upgrades, the Predator B 001 flew a second series of flight tests in mid-summer, 2001, aimed at expansion of its flight envelope and validation of its autonomous flight capabilities. The prototype reached a maximum sustainable altitude of 48,300 feet during one of those flights over the Edwards Air Force Base test range.
The Altair technology-demonstration variant for NASA is designed to carry an equivalent payload for as long as 32 hours at up to 52,000 feet. Eleven-foot extensions will be added to each wingtip, giving the Altair an overall wingspan of 86 feet with an aspect ratio of 23.5. It also will be powered by the TPE-331-10 turboprop engine, and is also expected to begin flight tests in the spring of 2002.