Waiting for the Watchkeeper?

The UK's Watchkeeper drone being tested in Israel: Copyright Thales

News of the progress (or rather lack of it) on the UK’s Watchkeeper drone programme has emerged over the last few days.   Due to enter service in February 2010, delayed to Spring 2011, the latest information according to Flight International,  is that it will not be deployed in Afghanistan “before the end of the year” due to, as Thales executives helpful put it “technical difficulties.”

Watchkeeper is being built under a £900m MoD contract (the latest NAO report shows that £625m has already been spent on the project !) by a joint British–Israeli venture company (U-TacS) owned by Thales UK and Elbit Systems.  It is based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone which the UK is currently renting in an innovate ‘pay by the hour’ operation for use in Afghanistan.  Watchkeeper will (eventually) replace the Hermes in Afghanistan.

Flight tests of Watchkeeper are being undertaken from Parc Aberporth in West Wales and on 17 April 2010 Watchkeeper went on her maiden UK flight.   A  500 square mile test zone for UAVs between Parc Aberporth and Epynt Mountain is currently being considered (See correction below).   Thanks to a helpful FoI inquiry we know that up until mid-February 2011, 13 test flights have take place in the UK since then (till Feb 2011).  Other flight tests of Watchkeeper are taking place in Israel.  Incidentally the Welsh Assembly has also applied for planning permission to use Llanbedr Airfield in Harlech for “research, development, testing and evaluation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).” (Thanks David)

Parc Aberporth

The first ten Watchkeepers, which were due to be assembled in Israel, have already been built according to the Flight International article and training of armed forces personnel for the new drone will begin at Larkhill Artillery Training Centre in May.   Following initial training there will then be operational exercise for Watchkeeper using temporary restricted airspace above Salisbury Plain after taking off from the MoD’s Boscombe Down test centre.

In an interesting sideswipe at the project , The Register argues that at a cost of £16.5m each, the 54 Watchkeepers are hugely expensive and, possibly, not even wanted by the Royal Artillery.   Watchkeeper “isn’t about jobs or British industry or weapons for the armed forces”, it says ”it’s mainly [about] pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into French and Israeli arms companies .”

Wandering Raven has more information (including a helpful list of Watchkeeper component manufacturers) and regular updates on the Watchkeeper drone – see the Wandering Raven Watchkeeper stream. 

Correction: The orignal post said that this testing area had already been approved.  It has been pointed out (thanks JG) that the consultation is still on going as of May 2011)

UK and France Plan Joint Work on “essential” Drones

David Cameron & Nicolas Sarkozy

UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy jointly signed The Declaration on Defence and Security Co-operation yesterday at the 2010 UK-France Summit.  The treaty, dubbed by the tabloids as ‘the entente frugale’, contains two paragraphs on drones:

 Unmanned Air Systems have become essential to our armed forces. We have agreed to work together on the next generation of Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Air Surveillance Systems. Co-operation will enable the potential sharing of development, support and training costs, and ensure that our forces can work together. We will launch a jointly funded, competitive assessment phase in 2011, with a view to new equipment delivery between 2015and 2020.

In the longer term, we will jointly assess requirements and options for the next generation of Unmanned Combat Air Systems from 2030 onwards. Building on work already started under the direction of the UK-France High Level Working Group, we will develop over the next two years a joint technological and industrial roadmap. This could lead to a decision in 2012 to launch a joint Technology and Operational Demonstration programme from 2013 to 2018.

Within hours BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation had submitted a joint letter to the two leaders offering to work together to jointly develop drones.  As I have previously suggested, (‘SDSR, Drones and Autonomy) FlightGlobal is reporting that this will mean “building  on the lessons learned during Europe’s Dassault-led Neuron and BAE Systems’ Taranis technology demonstration programmes”.

BAE Systems told the Financial Times that they welcomed the proposal to develop a joint drone “Not only is this an important milestone in terms of the development of our unmanned aircraft capability, but it represents a significant investment in the future of our UK and French military aerospace capability.”

As I say far too often on this blog, meanwhile US drones strikes continue in North Waziristan with eleven people killed in three separate drones strikes today (3rd November)  and five killed in a drone strike on Monday (1st) according to the Press Association.

Addition:  BBC Report:  BAE Welcomes new alliance 

BAE’s Demon Drone Flies With Help of Ten British Universities

Demon's First Flight - September 2010

Ten British universities have been working with BAE Systems on a new unmanned experimental drone system called Demon.  Demon, which uses small air jets to manuever rather than conventual mechanical flaps, has been developed under the £6.2m FLAVIIR programme.   Demon, had its  first flight in mid September  from Walney Island Airport, a small airport owned by BAE Systems on an island off the Cumbrian coast.  Demon has been built by BAE Systems in association with the following universities:  Cranfield, Imperial College, Warwick, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Southampton, Swansea, and York.  Demon will now undergo a two-years test and development programme.

Meanwhile BAE Systems has been awarded a $4m contract from the USAF for ‘engineering, training, and other services’ for the company’s Silver Fox UAV.   Silver Fox is a small drone used for intnellegence and surveillance purposes.   This contract is vital to supporting the warfighter,” said Gordon Eldridge, acting vice president and general manager of aerospace solutions at BAE Systems.

In March 2009, BAE bought Advanced Ceramic Systems, the company that US company that developed the Silver Fox and Coyote drones, for $15m.

Out Staring The Gorgon: BAE, Drones and ARGUS

ARGUS -IS sensor (BAE Systems)

Last week,  BAE Systems quietly announced that it had won a $50m contract to further develop the ARGUS  system in conjunction with U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA ).   ARGUS (or Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance) provides real-time, high-resolution, video surveillance capability for U.S. combat forces for detecting, locating, tracking and monitoring events on battlefields.  It is being designed to be used with drones or small manned aircraft.

This latest contract, to develop an infrared capability for ARGUS so that it can be used at nightime, come a few months after few months after BAE Systems admitted that ARGUS had been successfully tested by DARPA in Autumn 2009.

In a helpful article, ARES explains that ARGUS

“is designed to overcome the narrow “soda-straw” field of view of conventional surveillance sensors by providing multiple real-time video streams ….   DARPA says ARGUS can provide up to 65 “Predator-class” steerable video streams.  The 1.8-gigapixel sensor has four optical telescopes, each with 92 5-megapixel focal-plane arrays – cellphone camera chips, says BAE. The airborne processor combines the video output from all 368 arrays together to create a single mosaic image, with an update rate of 12-15 frames a second.

On the ground, the operator can create windows around stationary or moving targets within the image and ARGUS will down-link the video for these windows in real time. The system provides up to 65 640 x 480-pixel video streams simultaneously, limited only by data link capacity. Also a “global motion detector” mode looks at the entire image and tags potential targets with low-res image “chips”.

ARGUS in Operation (image Wired.com)

In other words, one drone will be able to track, in real time, up to 65 targets and as Wired.com suggests, monitor them over and area of 65 miles.

With up to 65 simultaneous video streams ARGUS easily beats the famously named ‘Gorgon Stare’ which was being developed to have 12 video streams.

ARES has also posted some fascinating images of what ARGUS is capable of doing.

The old adage “you can run, but you can’t hide” is becoming more true than ever, and real-time surveillance of huge swathes of territory using drones seems to be just over the horizon.

MoD confirms joint UK/France study into future drone

An MoD spokeswomen has said that the UK and France are half-way through a joint three-month feasibility study into the possibility of jointly producing/purchasing a new drone.    The study came to light after the a senior Dassault executive called a press conference to argue against the possibility of a joint purchase of Reaper drones.   According to the report in Defence News potential candidate drones include developments of EADS Talarion, BAE Systems’ Mantis,  General Atomics Reaper and  Dassault /Thales Système de Drone MALE (SDM).