The Royal Air Force’s remotely piloted eyes in the sky achieved a significant milestone in Lincolnshire, with the first ever Protector drone flight in the UK taking place from the fleet’s new home of RAF Waddington near Lincoln.
The first of the 16 drones arrived at RAF Waddington in September, ahead of a start to service which has been proposed for late 2024. Their arrival came four years on from a £100 million deal signed by the Ministry of Defence to test the drone.
Before then, a series of test flights and trials must be completed to ensure the Protector is fit to serve in the Royal Air Force fleet, and one of the drones took to the skies for its first official flight in the UK over the weekend.
This is the first of 16 drones that will be based at RAF Waddington. Photo: Royal Air Force
The remaining 15 drones from General Atomics are anticipated to arrive at RAF Waddington via a phased delivery over the coming years, with all aircraft expected to be in service by July 2025.
The Protector RG Mk1 is capable of operating across the world, while being controlled from RAF Waddington, with an endurance of over 300 hours and a capability of up to 40,000 feet in the sky.
It is equipped with a host of state-of-the-art surveillance technology, as well as weaponry that can support and launch military offensives, should they be necessary.
Photo: Royal Air Force
These weapons include potential to carry as many as 16 Hellfire missiles, the equivalent of the payload capacity of an Apache helicopter, and seven weapons stations that allow for a total of 21 Brimstone missiles — used in Middle Eastern conflicts across Syria and Iraq in recent years.
The RAF has said the Protector aircraft will undertake a wide range of tasks, such as land and maritime surveillance to track threats, counter terrorism responses, and supporting civil authorities including HM Coastguard.
Read: A new eye in the Lincolnshire sky: First Protector drone arrives at RAF Waddington
Group Captain Al Rutledge, RAF Programme Director for Protector said: “Achieving the first flight of Protector in UK Airspace is a fitting milestone for this phase of testing, representing an outstanding team effort. We will now build on this success and look forward to the next Test & Evaluation phase as part of our preparations for In Service Date later next year.”
It is hoped that all 16 aircraft will be in service by mid-2025. Photo: Royal Air Force
According to the Ministry of Defence’s figures from the start of 2023, the RAF’s Protector programme is expected to reach close to £1.35 billion, which is considerably more than the initial £816 million budget set out in 2016.
Protestors have also voiced concerns outside RAF Waddington’s base in the years since the proposals were first unveiled, arguing that the planned flights was a safety breach given the site’s close proximity to schools and homes.
Photo: Royal Air Force
However, officials told reporters at the launch of an airspace consultation event for both Protector and the Red Arrows last year, that plans were for a “segregated airspace” over the base, and that residents should not be concerned about this.
Mr. Simon Holford, Head of Remotely Piloted Air Systems for Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) said: “At DE&S one of our key drivers is strengthening operations by providing cutting-edge equipment into the hands of our Armed Forces. Seeing the first UK Protector take flight on UK soil is a key moment along that journey to our goal.”