Thales extends Watchkeeper UAV tests in Israel

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Thales UK expects to launch flight trials using the British Army's Watchkeeper unmanned air vehicle system from ParcAberporth in Wales later this year, but confirms that it has expanded the scope of current system development work being performed in Israel.

Geoff Price, Watchkeeper deputy programme manager for the UK's Defence Equipment and Support organisation, says Stage 2 and 3 system trials are taking place in Israel, to provide "a good body of evidence to fly in this country". The aircraft is expected to demonstrate its operational capabilities at altitudes up to 20,000ft (6,100m) during this phase, he adds.

Logistical and airspace approval issues have delayed the schedule for flying Watchkeeper in the UK, but "ParcAberporth is ready and available, and we will move within the next few months," says Nick Miller, business director, UAV systems for Thales UK's Aerospace Division.

thales uk
 © Thales UK
Elbit/Thales Watchkeeper UAV

Speaking at the Bristol International UAV Systems conference on 30 March, Price said test air vehicles will perform several flights after their transfer to the UK, before undergoing a "main sell-off" to national authorities to gain approval to start technical and operational field trials in late 2009.

"Through 2010 we will work up troop trials to get us ready for initial operational capability," Price adds. The work will be conducted over the Salisbury Plain training area in Wiltshire, with UAVs likely to be operated from Qinetiq's nearby Boscombe Down airfield.

Watchkeeper is being acquired as an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) system, and Price says the UK has no current requirement to arm its new UAVs. However, one Ministry of Defence official says: "It would be remiss of my colleagues at [the Directorate of Equipment Capability] Deep Target Attack not to look at it." One candidate would be the lightweight multirole missile now being developed by Thales Air Systems.

Meanwhile, an interim ISTAR service delivered by Thales in Afghanistan and Iraq since July 2007 has passed 18,000 flight hours using Elbit Hermes 450 UAVs. Provided under an urgent operational requirement contract with the UK MoD, the UAVs flew a combined 64h in one day in February, says Miller.

Thales says the Hermes 450 has encountered temperatures of 55°C (131°F) in Iraq, and that while this has not resulted in any failures, acknowledges that such environmental conditions have "stressed the system". The improved Watchkeeper system will undergo tests ranging from -34°C to +49°C, with solar loading up to +71°C, says Price.