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By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

05 Mar 14. Certified to the same exacting safety standards laid down for manned military aircraft today’s confirmation of ‘release to service’ of the brilliant Thales ‘Watchkeeper’ unmanned aerial system developed for the British Army is hugely significant. That the long process of meeting unprecedented levels of safety requirement and new standards that of necessity have needed to be laid down by the UK’s Military Aviation Authority is now complete means that this hugely 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 here in the UK through the joint venture company UAV Tactical Systems (U-TacS) that was set up by Thales in partnership with Elbit Systems at the time of the original contract award 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 capability operations in a military theatre of war. Watchkeeper, which is unarmed, has been designed to have an airborne capability of at least sixteen hours single mission duration. As the pioneer in what is an unprecedented new form of unmanned aerial vehicle technology specifically designed for the UK military and one that because it would be unmanned would of necessity require a detailed and rigorously designed set of new safety principles to be defined it is hardly surprising that Watchkeeper programme has taken longer than anticipated to bring to the important safety testing and evaluation phase.

In terms of the additional military capability that the Watchkeeper system affords full operational capability can hardly come soon enough. As the regulator for all types of UK based military air power capability a word of praise is required not just for how Thales has this brilliant programme since inception but also for the MAA which from a clean sheet of paper has needed to design a new concept and approach in terms of safety requirements through the full Watchkeeper test and evaluation phase.

Whilst it is unusual that I touch on technical based issues my understanding is that the Watchkeeper vehicle has a wingspan of 33ft and that the payload capacity of this is around 150 kilos. The vehicle incorporates day/night sensors, laser designator and synthetic aperture radar plus ground moving target indicator. 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 company that employs 7,500 staff in the UK from 35 different locations the company is a considered leader in the field of complex systems design, manufacturing and also of service support in operational deployment. Part of an organisation that worldwide has 65,000 employees based in 56 countries Thales has a long established relationship and experience of working with the UK MOD. In unmanned aerial vehicle technology capability and having been responsible for supplying the Camp Bastion based interim intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance service for th

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