Watchkeeper UAV makes first autonomous flight

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The British Army’s Watchkeeper tactical unmanned air vehicle has performed its first autonomous flight trial, with the sortie launching several months of system-level testing at an Elbit Systems facility in Israel.

Flown for the first time fully integrated with its ground control station, the approximately £900 million ($1.3 billion) programme’s second Watchkeeper 450 test vehicle (below) also performed an automatic take-off and landing during the November flight.

© Thales UK

“The trials will continue into 2009, and will validate the key mission system capability of the Watchkeeper system,” says Thales UK, prime contractor for the intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance deal.

In addition to testing the interface between the WK450 air vehicle and its GCS, the current campaign will be progressively expanded to also test the performance of its datalink, dual sensor payload, imagery exploitation capabilities and avionics including identification friend-or-foe equipment, says Thales.

© Thales UK

A subsequent phase of UK-based system tests will involve the WK450 being flown from the ParcAberporth UAV centre at west Wales airport next year.

The Watchkeeper system uses a GCS developed by Elbit/Thales UK joint venture UAV Tactical Systems, which will also manufacture the WK450 air vehicle – a development of Elbit’s Hermes 450 – at its Leicester site in the UK. The system is on track to enter army service from 2010, says Thales.