Project trials for Thales UK Watchkeeper tactical UAS will now begin in June, with the systems expected to be in service with British Army by February 2012. Thales UK’s Nick Miller told UAS VISION “Our building programme is ahead of schedule. The first 10 air vehicles and several ground control stations are already built.”
The Watchkeeper 450 (WK450) is developed from Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 and whilst similar to the Hermes 450 in outer appearance, it is very different in an operational context. The system suffered from teething troubles in the early stages of development, but all technical issues have now been successfully resolved. Over 200 test flights have been carried out in Israel and fourteen have been performed from the Parc Aberporth test centre in west Wales by earlier this year.
“We will continue flying both paths in parallel and finish trials around May,” says Nick Miller, business director for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) and UAV systems for Thales UK. Current programme activities are centred on proving the WK450’s full flight envelope, and on advancing sensor and data-link testing using production hardware in a synthetic laboratory at the Leicester manufacturing facility of Thales/Elbit joint venture U-TacS.
Flight testing using twin electro-optical and Thales I-Master synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indication (GMTI) payloads is also going well, says Miller, with “GMTI the real winner”.
Following the completion of field trials, the Watchkeeper system will be involved in exercises on the Salisbury Plain training area in Wiltshire. This will be the first time that UAS make use of a temporary segment of restricted airspace available after taking off from the MoD’s nearby Boscombe Down test centre.
Thales has been providing the MoD with surveillance cover in Afghanistan since 2007 – using leased Hermes 450s the company has delivered more than 43,500 flight hours of support, with five tasking lines now in use. “We do about 80% of the airborne ISTAR for the UK’s forward operating bases,” says Miller.
The UK MoD will be taking the first Watchkeepers to Afghanistan at end of 2011. The contract for the current urgent operational requirement runs until mid-2012, which enables a phased transition to the new equipment which will provide a sixth “tasking line” for ISTAR support.
Thales is building 54 Watchkeeper units under a ₤889 million ($1.3 billion) contract with the U.K. Ministry of Defence. It is also supplying spares and support services under a three-year follow-on award issued last year.
Sources: Aviation Week, Flight International, Thales