The Predator B (AKA the MQ-9 Reaper) is one of the mainstay drones of the US Air Force and is also flown by the air forces of the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. In the latest of a long series of upgrades, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has announced the maiden flight of the Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper Extended Range (ER) Long Wing. Retrofitted with long-endurance wings with greater internal fuel capacity and a raft of other features, the improvements bring the drone into the reconnaissance class.

The retrofitted Predator B ER took off on February 18 at General Atomic's Gray Butte Flight Test Facility in Palmdale, California. According to the company, the test flight brought the unmanned aircraft to its initial flight test altitude of 7,500 ft (2,300 m) before going through basic airworthiness maneuvers and landing.

The previous Predator B ER was an advanced version of the Predator B that stretched the drone's unloaded flight endurance from 27 hours to up to 35 hours thanks to an external fuel tank on each wing. The new version has an extended wingspan that is 13 ft (4 m) longer with internal fuel tanks, which brings the flight endurance to over 40 hours.

Other improvements to the aircraft include short-field takeoff and landing performance, leading-edge de-icers, integrated low- and high-band RF antennae, and spoilers on the wings that enable precision automatic landings.

General atomics says that the longer wings are the first upgrades for the Certifiable Predator B (CPB) development project, which is scheduled to field a production aircraft in early 2018. Other upgrades include greater structural fatigue and damage tolerance, improved flight control software, and enhanced abilities to handle bad weather.

"Predator B ER's new 79-foot wing span not only boosts the RPA's endurance and range, but also serves as proof-of-concept for the next-generation Predator B aircraft that will be designed for Type-Certification and airspace integration," says Linden Blue, CEO. "The wing was designed to conform to STANAG 4671 (NATO Airworthiness Standard for RPA systems), and includes lightning and bird strike protection, non-destructive testing, and advanced composite and adhesive materials for extreme environments."