Picture: Thales UK reveals new look for Watchkeeper UAV

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Thales is exhibiting a full-scale, final configuration model of the British Army's future Watchkeeper tactical unmanned air vehicle at the Paris air show, having completed a critical design review of the airframe in late May.

Now ready to enter its manufacturing phase, the £700 million ($1.4 billion) Watchkeeper programme will deliver battlefield intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services to the UK armed forces from 2010, with the UAV to offer an all-weather capability.

Selected in August 2005, Thales UK is partnered with Elbit Systems in developing the Watchkeeper air vehicle, which is a further development of the Israeli company's 450kg (990lb) Hermes 450. The newly revealed version incorporates a dual mission payload comprising the Thales I-Master synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indication sensor (pictured front) and Compass IV electro-optical/infrared system (rear) from Elbit subsidiary Elop. Also referred to as DCompass, the latter sensor is claimed by its manufacturer to be the first of its type to use a fully digital open-architecture design.

Compared with the baseline Hermes 450, the new Watchkeeper design also features a retractable and strengthened nose wheel and improved fixed main undercarriage, and its wing has been blended with the aircraft's upper fuselage and will now carry de-icing equipment. Thales says the enhanced design also offers an increased fuel capacity, identification friend-or-foe equipment, wide- and narrow-band datalinks and will be equipped to perform automatic take-off and landing. The changes have resulted in an increase to the UAV's previously estimated 450kg maximum take-off weight, but the extra fuel will enable it to deliver its planned endurance of around 17h.

"The finalisation of the UAV design represents another step towards the successful delivery of the system at the end of the decade," says Thales UK. A system critical design review was also scheduled to conclude earlier this month. The Ministry of Defence has also today signed a contract with the Elbit/Thales partnership company U-Tacs to deliver interim UAV services in Iraq using leased Hermes 450 air vehicles. Israeli sources say the urgent operational requirement deal values around £55 million.

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