A transatlantic flight by a civilian-registered Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) taking part in next month's Royal International Air Tattoo in Gloucestershire is set to usher in a new era in unmanned aviation.
As the first transatlantic RPA flight to land in the UK, it signals the beginning of a new chapter in the history of aviation and brings closer the possibility that one day, airlines may routinely operate aircraft remotely.
The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' MQ-9B SkyGuardian is due to take off from its base in North Dakota and embark on a 4,000-mile journey to RAF Fairford piloted by an operator located at the aerospace company's Flight Test and Training Centre in Grand Forks. It has a wingspan of 79ft and can fly non-stop for in excess of 40 hours.
The aircraft, arriving in advance of the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 13-15, is scheduled to touch down in the UK on Wednesday, July 11. The CAA has approved SkyGuardian's flight in UK airspace and has issued guidance to pilots and aircraft operators to take note of a series of airspace restrictions that will be put in place over certain areas of the UK to ensure its safe journey.
The Royal Air Force is due to bring into service the UK variant of MQ-9B SkyGuardian, known as PROTECTOR RG Mk1 which will increase its long-range surveillance and precision strike capabilities. It will feature in the static park as part of the Air Tattoo's international celebration of the Royal Air Force's Centenary.
A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said: "The CAA supports the safe development of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the UK as they can bring many benefits. We have worked closely with General Atomics, NATS and the armed forces to safely accommodate the SkyGuardian into UK airspace."
Air Tattoo Chief Executive Andy Armstrong said the airshow has a proud history of featuring aviation 'firsts' and he was pleased that this would continue in 2018.
He said: "Remotely piloted aircraft, for both civilian and military use, are clearly an important part of aviation's future landscape. We are already seeing a rapid growth in smaller airframes being used recreationally, for aerial photography and they have been used effectively in local search and rescue operations. We watch with great interest as further commercial applications are explored.
"It's appropriate that on an occasion when we are celebrating the RAF's centenary that we should present to the public not only aircraft from the RAF's illustrious past and present but also offer a rare glimpse of its future.
"Whilst this particular airframe is being flown to very stringent aviation guidelines, I wish to remind everyone that strict rules and regulations exist regarding the use of smaller remotely piloted airframes, commonly known as drones. In the case of the Air Tattoo none are permitted to be airborne at or around the airshow and to do so would constitute a criminal act."