05 Mar 2014. Certified to the same exacting safety standards laid down for manned military aircraft, today’s confirmation of ‘release to service’ of the Thales Watchkeeper unmanned aerial system (developed for the British Army) is hugely significant. The long process of meeting unprecedented safety requirements, laid down by the UK’s Military Aviation Authority, is now complete ensuring that this important programme moves from the testing and evaluation phase to full flight training in the hands of trained Army personnel.
Having completed a long and arduous testing and evaluation process and fully met rigorous safety standards laid down for unmanned systems by the MAA, confirmation of release to service will allow Army crews based at Boscombe Down to begin a period of full flight sorties and training exercises within segregated airspace on Salisbury Plain. Developed by Thales UK together with strong supply chain support, including rotary engines built in the UK through the joint venture company UAV Tactical Systems (U-TacS), my understanding is that full operational capability for Watchkeeper is planned for sometime during 2015.
Designed as a flexible tactical airborne capability Watchkeeper is a high performance, all weather, multi-sensor unmanned aerial system that is easily and quickly deployable for life saving military surveillance and intelligence operations. The platform is unarmed and has been designed to have an airborne capability of at least sixteen hours. In terms of the additional military capability that the Watchkeeper system affords, full operational capability can hardly come soon enough. Both the MAA and Thales deserve praise for working in a collaborative manner to deliver a new platform which required a fresh start in terms of design, regulation and evaluation.
Whilst it is unusual that I touch on technical issues my understanding is that Watchkeeper has a wingspan of 33ft and a payload capacity of around 150 kilos. The vehicle incorporates day/night sensors, laser designator and synthetic aperture radar plus ground moving target indicators. The Ground control system is connected via satellite data-link to a network of containerised ground control stations in which the imagery can be analysed and disseminated. Watchkeeper does not require a prepared runway surface on which to land or take-off.
As a development from the Hermes 450, the UK’s Watchkeeper system is designed to take the whole process of unmanned aerial vehicle systems technology a giant step forward in terms of battlefield ISTAR. The UK MOD has ordered 54 Watchkeeper platforms together with 15 ground control station systems; the intended in-service life is anticipated to run through to 2040.
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
Tel: +44 7710 779785