The British Army will start flying the Watchkeeper drone

British army to start flying the Watchkeeper

The Watchkeeper unmanned aerial system (UAS) developed by Thales for the UK army will be tested this week in restricted airspace.

The reconnaissance and surveillance drone, with a 10.7m wingspan, is equipped with a day and night camera, providing 24-hour high-definition coverage and a radar sensor to improve visibility in bad weather.

The drone, capable of flying at an altitude of up to 4,900m (16,000ft) has been designed to be able to stay above areas of interest for a significantly longer period of time compared with existing systems, in order to provide better images to ground-based troops.

"Watchkeeper is a fantastic capability because it will allow us to provide real-time imagery back to the ground commander so that he can then take appropriate action depending on what he sees and what he learns from that imagery,” said Colonel Mark Thornhill, Commander of 1st Artillery Brigade.

"Therefore, he will be able to perform in a much better fashion and make much better operational decisions based on the imagery we are providing to him."

The aircraft has been tested in West Wales since 2010 and is nearing the end of its trials. This week, pilots will fly the Watchkeeper in restricted airspace over the Ministry of Defence's Salisbury Plain Training Area, overseen by military air traffic controllers.

The Army is due to begin its own training later this year.

The Watchkeeper could later join the UK UAS fleet currently operating in Afghanistan as it is believed to offer additional advanced surveillance capabilities.

"You can tell the difference between a man, a woman and a child, but obviously you are not going to do the Hollywood stuff of seeing what people are typing on their phones," said Lance Corporal Christopher Gazey, a UAS analyst for 1st Artillery Brigade.

"That's not possible. We could be looking ahead of a friendly force convoy, they could be moving down the road and we could be looking 2-3km ahead of that convoy out of visible range of the troops."

Matt Moore, head of Thales UK's UAS business, said that once the aircraft reaches its operational altitude, it would be basically impossible to spot.  

"It is that high up, the shape, the size, the low signature profile of the airframe, that it is very difficult to see among the terrain and the environment in the air."

The Army currently operates four types of UAS in Afghanistan. The fleet has already completed about 120,000 flying hours. From this week, Watchkeeper will be operated alongside helicopters and other aircraft from the Boscombe Down airfield in Amesbury, Wiltshire, by 1st Artillery Brigade.

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