(A quick adaptation of my research assignment on unmanned system operations.)
The MQ-9 Reaper is an unmanned aerial vehicle primarily used by the United States Air Force for medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) missions. The Reaper is capable of tracking multiple moving targets thanks to its sensor suite. It can loiter on target, unlike manned aircraft, giving it an advantage when high-stake objectives are the aim. The Reaper is known for its search and rescue, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and close air support capabilities (Creech Air Force Base, 2015).
There are many components to the entire MQ-9 system. Simulators and training devices, the aircraft itself, sensor suites, Ground Control Stations (GCS), communications and support equipment, Readiness Spares Packages (RSP), technical data and technical training, and numerous personnel who not only operate the aircraft, but maintain the entire system. The MQ-9 was specifically created to be open-ended and modular. Modular means the MQ-9 Reaper system encompasses many smaller, cohesive units - this is favorable when building a system that wants to remain open to future additions or improvements. Open-ended means differing components can be fitted together for the system's overall purpose regardless of origin.
Ground Control Stations (GCS)
The MQ-9 recently got a GCS upgrade. The General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) Advanced Cockpit (Block 50) Ground Control Stations (GCS) were produced specifically for remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) as a replacement for the GA-ASI Block 30 Cockpit. The Block 50 advancement improves the aircraft capabilities by optimizing crew situational awareness using multiple feeds, increased cyber security features, and improved single-seat operations design (General Atomics, 2019).
The MQ-9 Reaper is in operation across the globe. The various operation centers include, but are not limited to:
- 174th Attack Wing, NY (174th Attack Wing, n.d.)
- Holloman AFB, NM (MQ-9 aircrew training) (Holloman Air Force Base, n.d.)
- Cannon AFB, NM (Cannon Air Force Base, n.d.)
- Creech AFB, NV (Creech Air Force Base, n.d.)
- Davis-Monathan Air Force Base, AZ
- Huachuca, AZ (Davis-Monathan Air Force Base, 2012)
- Miroslawiec Air Base, Poland (U.S. Air Forces in Europe and…, 2019)
- Nellis AFB, NV (Nellis Air Force Base, n.d.)
- Ellsworth AFB, SD (Ellsworth Air Force Base, n.d.)
- Tyndall AFB, FL and Vandenburg AFB, CA are both under consideration for a brand new MQ-9 operations center (Air Force Department, 2019)
- Other, as UAV locations change constantly per mission requirements
Data Storage Centers
Where military UAV data goes for permanent storage remains a public mystery, as much of this information is considered classified. The MQ-9 Reaper relays live data to the GCS where the pilot and operator use this information to make decisions for the duration of the sortie. Data collected from these flights is analyzed and disseminated by military intelligence personnel to those with need-to-know status (Norton, 2016). Though this information is heavily guarded, cybercriminals are constantly attempting to hack government computers, such as the successful breach in 2018 when a hacker downloaded sensitive UAV information and attempted to sell it for $200 on the dark web (Ng, 2018).
The MQ-9 Reaper communicates via wideband satellite for beyond-line-of-sight operations, and acoustic wave propagation for line-of-sight operations. Thanks to both technologies, control of the UAV and data from the UAV can be sent back and forth regardless of vehicle location. Furthermore, split operations are enabled for missions requiring the UAV to travel across the globe; split operations allow the pilot to pass control of the UAV to another GCS, remotely (Air Force Technology, n.d.; Military.com, n.d.).
Block 50 includes the new Multi-Level Secure (MLS) Integrated Communication System (ICS) which includes upgrades to the MQ-9 network infrastructure; information is now seamlessly shared across the globe from the GCS directly to the Squadron Operating Center (SOC) network (Ball, 2019).
Figure 3. UAV comms icon (UAV Navigation, 2018).
For the MQ-9 to fly its missions, one pilot and one sensor operator are required. These two work side-by-side for the duration of the mission. The rated pilot controls the mission while the sensor operator is in control of sensors, weapons, and the coordination of the mission. For split operations missions, there is a similar crew at another GCS somewhere in the world; they will receive command of the aircraft at some point during the mission, and will likely return control to the original GCS at mission completion (Military.com, n.d.). This two-person team works one of three shifts: days (normal duty hours), swings (midday to midnight), and mids (midnight til mid-morning) (Ouma et al., 2011).
MQ-9 support personnel not directly tied to the active missions include intelligence personnel for information analysis and dissemination and maintainers who keep the aircrafts in good-to-go condition (Clausen, 2017).
Figure 4. MQ-9 maintainers ready the aircraft (174th Attack Wing, n.d.).
Contingency & Recovery
As of 2018, the MQ-9 can automatically take off and land thanks to the development and successful testing of the General Atomics Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capability (ATLC). Not only does this new development allow the MQ-9 to handle its own launch and recovery, it also allows the vehicle to safely land when system issues arise (General Atomics Aeronautical, 2018; Headquarters, United States Air Force, 2009). General Atomics is known for its triple-redundant systems with fault-tolerance control (GBP Aerospace & Defense, 2019). Adding the ATLC capability furthers mission completion odds and decreases the likelihood of an aircraft crash.
Figure 5. Reaper on the flight line (General Atomics, 2018).
Head to the General Atomics Block 50 Site...
Learn more about the MQ-9 Reaper's Ground Control Station.
174th Attack Wing (n.d.). About us. Retrieved from https://www.174attackwing.ang.af.mil/About-Us/
Air Force Department (2019). Notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for F-35A Wing beddown and MQ-9 Wing beddown. Retrieved from https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/11/25/2019-25537/notice-of-intent-to-prepare-an-environmental-impact-statement-for-f-35a-wing-beddown-and-mq-9-wing
Air Force Technology (n.d.). Predator RQ-1/MQ-1/MQ-9 Reaper. Retrieved from https://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/predator-uav/
Cannon Air Force Base (n.d.). Units. Retrieved from https://www.cannon.af.mil/Units/
Clausen, C. (2017). MQ-9 maintainer’s innovation expedites engine training. Retrieved from https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1239271/mq-9-maintainers-innovation-expedites-engine-training/
Creech Air Force Base (2015). MQ-9 Reaper fact sheet. Retrieved from https://www.creech.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/669890/mq-9-reaper-fact-sheet/
Creech Air Force Base (n.d.). About us. Retrieved from https://www.creech.af.mil/About-Us/
Davis-Monathan Air Force Base (2012). 214th Attack Group. Retrieved from https://www.dm.af.mil/About-DM/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/1327526/214th-attack-group/
Ellsworth Air Force Base (n.d.). Ellsworth units. Retrieved from https://www.ellsworth.af.mil/Units/
GBP Aerospace & Defense (2019). Southeast Asian countries show interest in GA-ASI Systems. Retrieved from https://gbp.com.sg/stories/countries-in-southeast-asia-show-keen-interest-in-ga-asi-systems/
General Atomics (2019). New Block 50 ground control station flies MQ-9 Reaper. Retrieved from http://www.ga-asi.com/new-block-50-ground-control-station-flies-mq-9-reaper
General Atomics Aeronautical (2018). USAF completes first auto-land using MQ-9 BLOCK 5. Retrieved from http://www.ga-asi.com/usaf-completes-first-auto-land-using-mq-9-block-5
Holloman Air Force Base (n.d.). Holloman Air Force Base. Retrieved from https://www.holloman.af.mil/About-Us/
Military.com (n.d.). MQ-9 Reaper. Retrieved from https://www.military.com/equipment/mq-9-reaper
Nellis Air Force Base (n.d.). 53rd Test and Evalauation Group. Retrieved from https://www.nellis.af.mil/Units/53-TEG/
Ng, A. (2018). Researchers find stolen military drone secrets for sale on the dark web. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/researchers-found-stolen-military-secrets-for-sale-on-the-dark-web/
Norton, T. Staffing for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations. Retrieved from https://prhome.defense.gov/Portals/52/Documents/MRA_Docs/TFM/Reports/F2108340_TFMR-Staffing%20for%20Unmanned%20Aircraft%20Systems%20(UAS)%20
Ouma, J. A., Chappelle, W. L., & Salinas, A. (2011). Facets of occupational burnout among U.S. Air Force active duty and notional guard/reserve MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper operations (Report No. AFRL-SA-WP-TR-2011-0003). Wright-Patterson AFB, OH: Air Force Research Laboratory.
UAV Navigation (2018). UAV navigation in depth: External datalink selection. Retrieved from https://www.uavnavigation.com/company/blog/uav-navigation-depth-external-datalink-selection
U.S. Air Forces in Europe & Air Forces Africa (2019). MQ-9 mission at Miroslawiec Air Base, Poland, fully operational. Retrieved from https://www.usafe.af.mil/News/Press-Releases/Article/1770080/mq-9-mission-at-miroslawiec-air-base-poland-fully-operational/