July 30, 2010:
The manufacturer of the MQ-1 Predator UAV, General Atomics, is now marketing the unarmed version, the RQ-1, to civilian customers, as the Predator XP. By modifying it so that it's difficult to arm the UAV, the U.S. government has certified the RQ-1 as a civilian aircraft, and eligible for sale to anyone. Without this new marketing effort, the original Predator faced a shutdown of its production line. That's because General Atomics has developed two new UAVs to replace the Predator, and customers are responding with more orders for the new stuff, and few for the original Predator.
This year, the U.S. Air Force will buy its last MQ-1 Predator UAV. After that, the MQ-9 Reaper will be the primary medium UAV for the air force. The main reason is payload capacity. The Predator can only carry 450 pounds (204 kg) internally and 136 kg/300 pounds externally, compared to 800 pounds (364 kg) internally and 3,000 pounds (1.36 tons) externally for the Reaper. The Reaper can also fly faster (cruise speed of 300 kilometers an hour, versus 160 for the Reaper). Max takeoff weight for the Predator is one ton, compared to 4.7 tons for the Reaper. Predators will continue to be built for a few years, to take care of foreign orders. But now production may continue even longer, because of anticipated civilian demand for Predator XP.
The big attraction of the RQ-1 is its track record. Over its fifteen years of service, the RQ-1 has established a reliability record approaching that for manned aircraft of similar size (single engine commercial airplanes). The civilian RQ-1 can be equipped with air or ground search radar, in addition to the usual day/night camera. The RQ-1 is also inexpensive, costing about $5 million with minimal sensors (day/night video camera). That might be adequate for border/maritime patrol and other police work, but the RQ-1 can also be equipped for resource management (checking crops, surveying forests for lumbering or searching for minerals.) Satellites are used for a lot of this resource management work, but in many situations, an RQ-1 can do it cheaper. The RQ-1 can stay in the air for up to 24 hours and operate as high as 7,620 meters (25,000 feet).
The RQ-1 still has a problem with flying in areas where it is likely to encounter manned aircraft, and local laws prohibit, or limit UAV use. But this is changing, especially as navigation sensors on UAVs become more effective. So in a decade or less, suitably equipped UAVs will be legal in airspace full of manned aircraft.