Feeds

Qinetiq wins Watchkeeper drone test contract

Flying porkbarrel-bot heads for Wales

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

The UK's ongoing effort to develop a domestic flying-robot business - and, incidentally, to supply a small number of such robots to the British forces - has handed out some more nourishment to the arms-tech biz.

It was announced on Friday that ground and flight testing for Project Watchkeeper will be handled by Qinetiq, the controversially privatised defence research outfit.

Watchkeeper

Watchkeeper. 'A major coup for Wales'.

The drone programme is described as "the £800m Watchkeeper project" by Qinetiq, but in fact the latest National Audit Office report lists the forecast cost as £901m. For this sum, the British army will receive just 54 robot aircraft, according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

That puts each fairly small, unarmed Watchkeeper at nearly £17m. That's almost enough to buy a much larger, much more capable Predator-B/Reaper from the States - as in fact the Royal Air Force has already done. The Army has also bought smaller off-the-shelf Hermes 450s from Israel, finding itself unable to wait years for Watchkeepers. Both these systems are already in service above Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reason why Watchkeeper costs so much for such a relatively unimpressive set of specs is that the project is being run as much to develop the UK drone industry as it is to equip the armed forces. In particular, Watchkeeper is expected to boost the new robotport in Wales, ParcAberporth. This is where Qinetiq will do the Watchkeeper flight trials.

The Welsh government is understandably delighted about the whole thing.

"MOD's decision to site Watchkeeper test and evaluation in Wales reinforces the role of ParcAberporth as a site of worldwide importance for unmanned system development," said Rhodri Morgan, First Minister of the Welsh Assembly.

"This is a major coup for Wales... Watchkeeper... will provide a significant beneficial impact to the regional economy... this programme will act as a springboard for attracting other UAV and aerospace technology businesses to the area."

To anyone familiar with the long and doleful relationship the MoD has had with other UK regional arms-technology centres, this has an ominous sound.

The lame-duck helicopter factory at Yeovil springs to mind, actually. Yeovil's existence has been a deadly millstone around the neck of British helicopter capability for decades, ensuring that the UK forces have mostly been compelled to buy wildly overpriced and usually not very good rotorcraft; and then endure lengthy delays before they turn up.

In a typical Yeovil helicopter deal, it usually turns out that each worker whose job gets preserved could have been paid off to the tune of £500k or even £1m; the forces could have had alternative aircraft, as good or better, sooner; and still money would have been saved overall.

The Airbus factories at Bristol and Broughton have similarly meant that Blighty is still waiting for Airbus A400M transport planes, each of which is to cost £105m+ on current NAO projections. The wait for A400Ms, like that for Watchkeeper, has been so long the MoD has been forced to buy hugely more powerful C-17 airlifters from America anyway (the sixth Brit C-17 has just been ordered, for £130m. It can carry almost three times what an A400M can, and it's faster too).

British helicopter and transport-plane capability are two of the most serious equipment weaknesses the UK armed forces currently suffers from. Unless ParcAberporth and the rest of the quickly-building British roboplane base is somehow very different from everything that has gone before, we're headed down the same disastrous road with unmanned aircraft.

There's nothing wrong with subsidising industry, though it would probably be good if that industry was one which didn't require a constant flow of sweetheart deals from the government to stay onshore.

There's a lot wrong with taking regional subsidies out of a seriously overstretched defence budget, however. The urge to maintain British arms-tech workers on decent pay is now - literally - starting to mean that the MoD can no longer afford to hire British soldiers.

As for the jobs here in the UK regions, politicians who think that this sort of thing lasts should look at the long decline of BAE Systems' UK workforce, and the way that company has for its entire history moved UK taxpayers' capital out of the country (selling off the Airbus wing factories, among other things, so that those jobs aren't even safe despite the huge efforts to keep them so).

In this light, the Watchkeeper programme resembles not so much an aerial combat robot as a fairly blatant short term vote-buying exercise.

Pigs can fly, it seems; robot ones, anyway. But only once they're dead, salted, and in the pork barrel. ®

Protecting against web application threats using SSL

More from The Register

next story
Hey, Scots. Microsoft's Bing thinks you'll vote NO to independence
World's top Google-finding website calls it for the UK
Phones 4u slips into administration after EE cuts ties with Brit mobe retailer
More than 5,500 jobs could be axed if rescue mission fails
Apple CEO Tim Cook: TV is TERRIBLE and stuck in the 1970s
The iKing thinks telly is far too fiddly and ugly – basically, iTunes
Israeli spies rebel over mass-snooping on innocent Palestinians
'Disciplinary treatment will be sharp and clear' vow spy-chiefs
Huawei ditches new Windows Phone mobe plans, blames poor sales
Giganto mobe firm slams door shut on Microsoft. OH DEAR
Phones 4u website DIES as wounded mobe retailer struggles to stay above water
Founder blames 'ruthless network partners' for implosion
Found inside ISIS terror chap's laptop: CELINE DION tunes
REPORT: Stash of terrorist material found in Syria Dell box
OECD lashes out at tax avoiding globocorps' location-flipping antics
You hear that, Amazon, Google, Microsoft et al?
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.
Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet
Explores the current state of website security and the contributions Symantec is making to help organizations protect critical data and build trust with customers.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.