The General Atomics‘ RG Mk1 Protector drone, the fourth MQ-9B SkyGuardian air vehicle, achieved first flight on Sept. 25, the company said, as it awaits system testing of the drone by a U.K. Ministry of Defense, U.S. Air Force, General Atomics’ team in expectation of delivery to the Royal Air Force (RAF) next summer.

Labeled UK1, the first Protector drone has “a special customer specified configuration” for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), per General Atomics.

General Atomics said that the MQ-9B is its most advanced drone and is available in several configurations: the SkyGuardian, the maritime SeaGuardian with a multimode 360-degree field-of-regard Maritime Patrol Radar and optional sonobuoy capability, or customized configurations, such as that of the Protector.

“Upon completion of this initial [Protector] testing, UK1 will be delivered to the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense in the summer of 2021, but will remain in the USA to complete the Royal Air Force’s test and evaluation program,” per General Atomics.

RAF Group Captain Shaun Gee, the RAF’s Director of Air ISTAR Programs, said in a General Atomics’ statement that Protector’s “ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours will offer a vastly improved ISTAR capability.”

“Given that it is designed to fly in non-segregated, civil airspace, the Protector…will be able to respond rapidly and offer flexibility, delivering many types of military or civil authority support missions, including search and rescue,” he said.

General Atomics said in March that it had completed the first production MQ-9B SkyGuardian for the RAF and had conducted first flight of the SkyGuardian on March 30 at the company’s Flight Operations Facility in El Mirage, California.

A year ago, General Atomics said that it had signed a direct commercial sale contract with the U.K. Ministry of Defense to complete test and evaluation activities required to certify the Protector for flight in civil airspace. (Defense Daily, Sept. 12, 2019).

Beside RAF use, the Protector is to fly in civil airspace to perform security-related and disaster response missions, such as fires and floods.

General Atomics has said that it is working to integrate a detect and avoid (DAA) system on Protector–a system with a “Due Regard” air-to-air radar and processor, Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS II), and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). Protector is also to have all-weather performance with lightning protection, damage tolerance, and a de-icing system, the company said.

The RAF is to buy at least 16 Protector drones to replace its fleet of MQ-9 Reapers. The Belgian and Australian militaries have also chosen to buy the drone, which has received “significant interest” internationally, per General Atomics.

At this month’s Air Force Association virtual Air, Space, and Cyber conference, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman [NOC], and Lockheed Martin‘s [LMT] Skunk Works released their concept designs–all featuring a flying wing–for the Air Force’s expected MQ-Next competition (Defense Daily, Sept. 18). Boeing [BA] and Kratos have also submitted concept designs but did not reveal drawings for them.

The flying wing designs appear to have inherent advantages for the MQ-Next drone envisioned by the Air Force for Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)-linked military operations against “near peer” threats.