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UK's Watchkeeper drone in first autonomous flight

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The British Army's new Watchkeeper robotic surveillance aircraft has made its first autonomous test flight, carrying out a full mission without remote piloting. The tests took place in Israel, at a facility operated by Israeli drone manufacturer Elbit.

Watchkeeper is being made jointly by Thales UK, the British arm of the French weaponry giant, and Elbit. The software used in the Ground Control Station (GCS) for the latest test flight was written at Thales' Crawley facility.

"This is another major step forward on the WATCHKEEPER programme," said Thales' Mark Barclay. "We have made steady progress since the contract was signed in 2005 and I am particularly pleased that Thales and our external partners continue to deliver in line with the agreed customer schedule."

Under the Watchkeeper programme the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) will pay £860m to acquire 54 aircraft and supporting items like spares and ground stations, putting each one at approximately £16m. Watchkeepers are relatively small, able to operate from short or rough airstrips. They will carry a ground-scanning radar system able to pick out moving targets such as vehicles, and an electro-optical camera system.

Watchkeepers won't be armed, but will be able to designate targets with a laser-dot pointer to be hit by smartbombs or missiles from other aircraft. The Watchkeepers will be some of the first large roboplanes to fly hands-off, without a formally-qualified "pilot". Rather, they will typically be under the supervision of a suitably trained Army non-com.

The US Army has a similar plan to use larger "Sky Warrior" aircraft, likewise flying themselves and operated by noncommissioned tech specialists rather than officer pilots. However, the Sky warrior - a variant on the established, remote-piloted Predator already in service with the US air force and CIA - will be armed, generally carrying four Hellfire missiles.

The US Army Sky Warrior programme is intended to field a fleet of 132 aircraft with ground stations spares and other support for approximately $1bn - or $7.5m per aircraft.

The Watchkeeper test programme is set to continue next year in the UK, at the new ParcAberporth flagship UAV facility in Wales. Meanwhile, the MoD is using a fleet of rented Hermes 450s - the Israeli aircraft on which the Watchkeeper is based - in Afghanistan. ®

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