San Diego’s General Atomics is being awarded a $68.2 million contract to develop the next generation of the Predator robotic spy plane, the Defense Department said yesterday.
The contract calls for General Atomics to build and demonstrate the MQ-9 Hunter-Killer drone, also known as the Predator B, for the U.S. Air Force.
Compared with the original Predator, which has been widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan, the MQ-9 aircraft can fly twice as high and carry a bigger payload of weapons.
Executives at GA Aeronautical Systems could not be reached for comment yesterday. The company employs about 1,200 and has about 800,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space throughout Southern California.
The deal highlights the Air Force’s growing reliance on remotely piloted aircraft, including Northrop Grumman Corp.’s high-flying Global Hawk reconnaissance plane, which was developed in San Diego.
Contract options for the MQ-9 include retrofitting four aircraft to the new configuration, as well as communications and ground-and flight-test facility upgrades.
The first-generation Predator can fly as high as 25,000 feet and stay aloft for up to 40 hours. It can provide real-time video feeds to U.S. troops on the ground and fire two Hellfire anti-tank missiles.
The new version of the aircraft is designed to fly as high as 50,000 feet. It can carry a total of 16 Hellfires – as many as the Army’s Apache helicopter.
General Atomics said last month it has manufactured 126 Predators since it began making the unmanned aircraft in San Diego more than a decade ago. Six of those were the MQ-9 second-generation plane.
Earlier this month, the Air Force said it planned to spend $5.7 billion to buy enough Predators to equip 15 squadrons over the next five years, compared with the current three squadrons.
The Predator’s main mission so far has been surveillance and reconnaissance. But in November 2002, a Predator fired a missile at a civilian vehicle carrying suspected guerrillas in Yemen, the first such reported offensive use of the drone.