The Drone Index: Thales Watchkeeper
Unarmed, prop-driven, and blessed with modest performance specifications, there’s no easy explanation why the UK’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) hankered for the Watchkeeper.
Thales’ Watchkeeper is a MALE UAV that shares a remarkable kinship with the popular Hermes from Israel. It flies long enough and doesn’t soar too high, making it ideal for geospatial missions.
The Watchkeeper’s origins dates back to 2005, a time when the MoD lacked a dependable UAV for its troops. It took a $1.35 billion contract and almost a decade of R&D for the Watchkeeper to finally soar from a runway. A total of 54 Watchkeepers were ordered together with 14 ground stations.
The Watchkeeper’s delay is the result of red tape and a protracted testing phase. Until late last year, the Watchkeeper was being tweaked by Thales from an airfield in Aberporth, West Wales.
It was only in March, 2014, when the strict Military Aviation Authority (MAA) rubber-stamped the Watchkeeper with a release to service (RTS), readying for deployment.
In September 2014, the first batch of Watchkeepers arrived in Camp Bastion, the UK’s air base in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand Province for the Royal Artillery. (Camp Bastion has since been handed over to the Afghan National Army.)
The Watchkeeper’s arrival came in the aftermath of a Hermes 450 crash in 2011 that cast a shadow on the British Army’s unmanned aspirations.
The open secret of the Watchkeeper is it’s a clone of the Hermes 450 made by Elbit Systems.
Checking on the Hermes 450 reveals a little of what the Watchkeeper can do. The Hermes 450 is suited for 16 hours of continuous flight. Its maximum ceiling is 18,000 feet. Its engine type and top speed aren’t published, although the latter is probably in the 70 kilometer per hour range.
If the Hermes 450’s dimensions are similar to the Watchkeeper, then the Watchkeeper’s wingspan is 30 feet and the length of the body is 10 ft.
The Watchkeeper is equipped with two pods. One contains an I-Master Radar, a synthetic aperture device for terrain mapping. Another carries an electro-optical infra-red camera for tracking movement on the ground.
Thales describes the Watchkeeper as a “complete imagery and intelligence system” and touts its “expeditionary” ruggedness, or all-weather flight capability.
The Watchkeeper’s greatest appeal is being a platform for ISTAR: Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.
Thales AG is a French-owned, publicly listed multinational that specializes in electronics and aerospace products. It ranks among the world’s top 10 defense contractors.
The Watchkeeper is Thales’ first brave foray into the UAV market.