The development program for the Watchkeeper—currently the largest UAV (unmanned air vehicle) system in Europe—is gathering momentum. Since July 2007, when primary contractor Thales U.K. revealed the final configuration of the system, the evaluation team has met and exceeded specific targets, ahead of the tactical UAV's introduction into service in October 2010.
Watchkeeper is an ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) program for the British Army currently being developed in Hermes 450 UAVs. Housed in this craft, the 450-kg UAV flies at 18,000 ft and reaches speeds of up to 70 kts. Power comes from a standard Rotax single-propeller engine atop a Wankel engine, and flights of up to 18 h are possible.
In its current form, there is human involvement in the Watchkeeper flights from a communications point of view, but the aim for the near future is to ensure complete autonomy. According to Nick Miller, Business Director, ISTAR and UAV systems at Thales U.K., testing is going well. "We have done over 120,000 flying hours with Hermes 450s that are fitted with the Watchkeeper system." Currently, evaluation is taking place in Afghanistan, prior to the testing being fully transferred to the U.K. later this year. Tests have already taken place at the Parc Aberforth UAV facility in Wales, but Miller admits that there are a number of hurdles to overcome: "The biggest challenge we face is the U.K. airspace," he says. "At the moment, you can't fly UAVs in U.K. civil air space, but hopefully, Watchkeeper will be a forerunner to help solve that problem."
As one part of Thales U.K.'s growing ISTAR capabilities, the Watchkeeper project comprises both air and ground elements. In the air, tests of the system are being undertaken on Hermes 450 platforms that have been specifically modified to integrate the UAV's capabilities. One of the first elements to be validated was Thales' automatic takeoff and landing system (MAGIC ATOLS). Ongoing since the initial trials in July 2008, evaluation of the system has sought to prove out MAGIC ATOLS's ability to operate accurately in all weathers. The GPS-based technology's nonintrusive stand-alone architecture allows it to be integrated into any UAV, while it can be deployed very quickly to react to force operations on the ground.
"The program features the best breed and most advanced electronics onboard in terms of avionics, because Watchkeeper has to last for the next 20 or so years," explains Miller. A major enhancement in the Watchkeeper is the dual-payload configuration of advanced synthetic aperture radar (SAR)/ground moving target indicator (GMTI) radar, and electro optical (EO)/IR/laser target designator. "The synthetic aperture and ground-moving target indicator has been designed specifically for Watchkeeper, and it is used to monitor and give a map of the ground, through the weather." According to Miller, this system—called IMASTER—is now being planned for use in manned and other assets accordingly. IMASTER weighs less than 30 kg, and its combination of capability, cost, weight, and power consumption makes it ideal for helicopters and small fixed-wing aircraft as well as UAVs. A combined SAR/GMTI capability can be added to tactical UAVs in addition to, or instead of, EO sensors. On smaller air vehicles that carry just one payload, the sensors can be changed in minutes.
The cameras on the Watchkeeper are another item developed from existing hardware used in the Hermes range. They have the ability to pick out individuals on the ground 20 km in the distance when the UAV is 10,000 ft in the air.
Key to the ground support is the ground control station, which runs launch and recovery, supports the ATOL system as well as the whole mission. Two ground data terminals that control each air vehicle with a datalink support each station. Wide-band and/or narrow-band datalinks are used to transfer data and video from the UAV back to the control station.
Miller reveals that there are 54 Watchkeeper systems currently in service and being used to prove out a variety of different scenarios. "In the next few months, U.K. trials will take place, where U.K.-specific information will be put on the system," says Miller. After the initial production phase, full operating capability is set to be reached by 2013.