British Army’s Watchkeeper released to service

The UK Ministry of Defence has finally granted the British Army’s Watchkeeper unmanned aircraft system (UAS) programme its release to service (RTS).  This notification effectively moves the troubled Watchkeeper from testing and evaluation to allowing training on the system in the UK.

As a result it is the first UAS to be awarded a full RTS and is the only UAS of its type allowed to fly in UK airspace. Developed from the Israeli-built Elbit Systems Hermes 450, Watchkeeper was originally due to enter service in 2010 but development issues has delayed the programme, making it unlikely to see service in Afghanisatn as was originally envisaged.

The British Army is acquiring 54 Watchkeeper UASs and 15 ground-control stations at a cost of GBP 1 billion. Awarding the RTS came after the MOD’s rigorous safety and airworthiness reviews ensured the system can be operated safely by the British Army.  Watchkeeper should commence flying from QinetiQ’s facility at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire during early March 2014.

Over the coming weeks, 1st Artillery Brigade pilots will be trained to fly Watchkeeper in restricted airspace over the Salisbury Plain Training Area.  The flights, which will take place between 8,000 and 16,000ft (2,440-4,880m), will be overseen by military air traffic controllers.  Alan Warnes