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Line of unmanned aircraft for Royal Air Force passes audition

Britain's Protector line of drones passed a major testing milestone Tuesday, Royal Air Force partner General Atomics announced.

(CN) — The United Kingdom moved one step closer to having its own line of military drones with the ability to fly — and strike — anywhere around the world as its Protector RG Mk1 unmanned aerial vehicle just completed another successful round of tests.

The aircraft is the product of an $80 million deal Britain’s Ministry of Defense signed with San Diego-based aeronautics firm General Atomics last July.

The Protector line of drones, also known as the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, will be the world's first certified "medium-altitude, long-endurance” remotely piloted aircraft, capable of flying consistently for up to 40 hours.

General Atomics says it expects testing to wrap in 2022 and to deliver the finished product to the U.K. in 2023 for use by the Royal Air Force by 2024. The RAF will be able to fly remote missions from its base in Lincolnshire, in eastern England.

The Protector will replace the Royal Air Force's current Reaper drone fleet, which were used in Afghanistan. Unlike its predecessor, which was made in the United States, the Protector will be almost fully developed in the U.K.

The British government unveiled the Protector program in 2015 as a counterterrorism measure. “The duty of the U.K. government is to keep our country safe and we must do more as the threats we face evolve. We must adapt and stay ahead of our enemies,” former Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

Following the drone’s first successful flight last year, the Royal Air Force said it had three aircraft on order, though its contract with General Atomics has an option for 13 more. The planned fleet of 16 “will more than double the capability currently provided by Reaper,” the RAF said.

“The inaugural flight of the U.K.’s first Protector is an exciting and welcome step in the development of our ground-breaking fleet,” defense procurement minister Jeremy Quin said at the time. “With increased range and endurance, greater ISR [Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and weapons capacity and improved weather resilience, Protector will play a vital intelligence and deterrent role in countering future threats.”

The Protector can fly up to 40,000 feet and its seven weapon stations means it can carry 21 Brimstone missiles, according to an evaluation by the U.K. military press.

On Tuesday, General Atomics announced Protector had passed a battery of key system-level stress tests designed to assess the full strength of its fuselage, wings, tails and landing gear.

Environmental testing took place at the McKinley Climatic Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, during which the Protector was exposed to extreme cold temperature, in-flight ice, supercooled fog, in-flight rain, high humidity, and high temperature tests.

"These critical system-level tests prove the safety and reliability of our aircraft to operate in extreme climates and electromagnetic environments," Chris Dusseault, senior director of the Protector program at General Atomics, said in a statement.

General Atomics did not respond to a request for comment.

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