The US Air Force recently conducted a successful test trial for the upgrade on the MQ-9 Reaper drone’s satellite communications (SATCOM).

According to a press release, the Air National Guard-Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC) led the test, in partnership with the 174th Attack Wing and 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron, during exercise Northern Edge 2023 held at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska. The demonstration aims to deploy the sophisticated drone on future intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions internationally, operating from remote US military bases, particularly in the Pacific region.

The SATCOM upgrade features advanced communication technology and sensors capable of transmitting critical data over long distances. Through this improvement, the Reaper drone can maintain its high altitude capabilities while ensuring the quality of its real-time intelligence gathering, which encompasses monitoring threat activities, positions, and movements.

After completing the enhanced trials, the drone will support ongoing operations worldwide, actively participate in critical training exercises, and undertake other missions aimed at strengthening and modernizing the military capacity of the US armed forces.

Major Ryan Nastase, the Test Program Manager, further noted that implementing the SATCOM upgrade will have significant benefits for the MQ-9 drone, enabling the cutting-edge unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to operate effectively from “pole to pole,” meaning it will have communication capabilities in both the northern and southern extremities of the Earth.

Furthermore, the SATCOM upgrade will significantly enhance the Reaper drone’s data transmission and reception capabilities. It can handle a substantial volume of information by increasing the amount of data or bandwidth that the MQ-9 can transmit and receive by more than twofold—a crucial factor for ISR missions, as it allows the drone to gather and relay more data in real-time.

MQ-9 Reaper new weapons test
A USAF MQ-9 Reaper assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron armed with an AIM-9X Block 2 missile, 2020. (Image source: DVIDS)

In addition to increasing the bandwidth, the latest upgrade highlighted the reduction of latency or transmission time, significantly cutting the time required to send and receive data by a factor of ten. This latency reduction ensures swift relaying of the information collected by the MQ-9 drone. Accordingly, it enables its operators to make quicker decisions and respond faster, particularly during crucial moments.

Lt. Col. Matthew Harris, a test pilot stationed at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York, expressed that the latest upgrade is a significant advancement for both the MQ-9 drone and the Air National Guard, dubbing it a “game-changer.”