Defence will buy SkyGuardian drones despite concerns

written by Staff reporter | November 5, 2020

The Australian government has confirmed it will still buy 12 SkyGuardian drones, despite uncertainty over its capability over urban environments, writes Charbel Kadib.

The Department of Defence has confirmed it is developing options for up to 12 General Atomics MQ-9B (SkyGuardian) aircraft to present for second pass government approval in 2022, as part of Project AIR 7003, a $1.3 billion program to deliver an armed remotely piloted aircraft system to the ADF.

This comes despite General Atomics’ failure to demonstrate the aircraft’s capability in urban environments, with the manufacturer forced to cancel a test flight in San Diego earlier this year in response to community pushback.

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Last month, US regulators confirmed that General Atomics would need to reapply for permission to conduct test flights over densely populated urban environments in light of safety concerns.

However, a spokesperson from the Department of Defence has said the decision to purchase SkyGuardian would not be affected by the current domestic air space restriction in the US.

According to Defence, worries over regulatory compliance, aviation safety and airworthiness would be addressed “well ahead of achieving initial operating capability”, currently scheduled for the “mid-2020s”.

“The variant of SkyGuardian that Defence is purchasing will be certified to similar standards as manned aircraft. This is to ensure the safety of people on the ground and other airspace users,” the spokesperson told Defence Connect.

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“While this is yet to be completed, this will enable operations in domestic airspace.”

The spokesperson noted that in Australia, testing would be guided by the Defence Aviation Safety Regulations, rather than Civil Aviation Safety Regulations that govern civil aviation.

“This includes Defence-specific regulations to operate unmanned aircraft systems in Australia,” the spokesperson added.

Defence added that it would work closely with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to ensure Defence regulations are compatible with CASA’s guidelines.

The SkyGuardian is expected to provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare support and precision strike to multiple domains.

According to Defence, the aircraft can continuously observe a wide area for an extended period of time, supporting ADF and allied land forces, and providing reconnaissance support to search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

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