The Royal Air Force is set to start testing its rebranded Reaper drones in UK skies over the next few weeks – and senior officers are planning to make them available to local councils.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, head of the RAF, made the bizarre pledge about local authority assistance in a speech announcing the unmanned aircraft's arrival at Lincolnshire's RAF Waddington.
"Over the next few weeks we'll be working with the Civil Aviation Authority, civilian authorities, and allies to confirm our ability to operate this aircraft freely in UK and international airspace," said the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), referring to the drone by its RAF name of Protector.*
The air marshal added: "We will also confirm its enormous operational utility from assisting local authorities to supporting maritime operations in the North Atlantic."
Exactly why the RAF would be assisting local councils with an aircraft capable of mounting 18 Brimstone missiles wasn't explained in CAS's speech, though the SkyGuardian variant of the Reaper, as bought by the RAF, can also mount aerial surveillance equipment.
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SkyGuardian was designed to be flyable in civilian-controlled airspace, integrating safely with manned aviation in a way that doesn't require large parts of the sky to be sanitised of all other aircraft (as the Army's disastrous Watchkeeper drone still requires).
So far no military drone has been safety certified as a civilian aeroplane capable of being flown in the same airways as passenger airliners. One of the RAF's objectives is to trial its new SkyGuardian drone in British skies to achieve that certification. This will mean experiments aimed at developing procedures for both pilots and air traffic controllers alike.
The Armed Forces previously provided aerial surveillance to civilian police, latterly through Britten-Norman Islander aircraft based at RAF Northolt.
The Islanders have since fallen victim to defence cuts, meaning police forces – and apparently local councils – may fancy tasking a couple of Reapers to detect and punish Mrs Miggins' heinous crime of putting the recycling bin out on garden waste collection day. ®
*Britain renamed its MQ-9 Reapers a few years ago for fairly obvious reasons. Although it's been variously branded SkyGuardian, Protector and Predator, these are all trade names for the basic MQ-9 drone airframe developed by US company General Atomics.