The British Army is within weeks of performing its first training flights from Boscombe Down in Wiltshire with the Watchkeeper unmanned air system, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed.
“Significant recent progress has been made on the Watchkeeper programme to satisfy the regulatory authorities that the system will be safe to fly,” says armed forces minister Mark Francois. The type “should commence flying from Boscombe Down in early March 2014”, he said on 27 February in response to a parliamentary question.
The first flights from the MoD/Qinetiq flight test centre will be conducted in association with the Thales UK/Elbit Systems joint venture responsible for developing the tactical UAS.
Once these have been completed, Francois says “an initial release to service is expected to be authorised by the Chief of the General Staff to allow the first military flights by the army from Boscombe Down from early April 2014”.
Following its approval for service use, the Watchkeeper system will initially be used to support activities on the nearby Salisbury Plain training area. Air vehicles will cover the short distance from Boscombe Down via the use of temporary blocks of restricted airspace.
Acquired via a more than £1 billion ($1.67 billion) programme, the army’s Watchkeeper system will eventually comprise 54 air vehicles, 15 ground control stations and associated equipment.
Earlier plans for the delayed project had called for flight activities from the Wiltshire site to commence before the end of 2011.