Watchkeeper

Watchkeeper is an uncrewed aircraft system with a range of intelligence and reconnaissance cameras and sensors, including a state-of-the-art surveillance radar. It lets the Army see things up to 200km away and helps keep our troops safe. It gathers information, such as spotting enemy activity, during the day and at night. It is built in the UK, and has been used successfully in Afghanistan, where it played a crucial protective role for British troops. Since the first flight in 2010, Watchkeeper has accumulated over 3,000 flying hours.

Watchkeeper is an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) asset, that can collect, process and disseminate high quality imagery intelligence. This can be networked to senior commanders and analysts as well as streaming imagery and radar pictures to troops on the ground. It is a versatile aircraft which can be used in warfighting as well a wide range of other scenarios.

Watchkeeper is an autonomous system that always requires a ‘human in the loop’ to authorise all aspect of its operations. It is built to operate in range of ground and air conditions and is equipped to support a wide range of military and security missions. The system has a range of sensors and infra-red full motion video cameras, able to operate at day and night. Identifying assets on the ground is a primary function of Watchkeeper and it is fitted with radar technology and a ground movement target indicator. Within Watchkeeper’s laser sub-system are a separate target marker, designator, and range finder to assist in identifying different assets.

The Watchkeeper system was built in the UK by Thales, with a UK supply chain supporting British manufacturing jobs. The system has undergone rigorous flight testing in west Wales and is certified to operate safely in UK airspace.  With Watchkeeper primarily operating in the land environment, it is the Army, rather than the RAF, who are responsible for operating the aircraft.

Training and Operations

The 47th Regiment Royal Artillery, based at Larkhill, Wiltshire is responsible for Watchkeeper, with troops from that regiment being trained in how to safely and effectively operate the system.

Troops undertake a bespoke UAS operators training programme within the regiment, with a pilots’ aptitude test selecting the best candidates to go forward for further training. A state-of-the-art simulator is used to train all pilots ahead of live flying. Fully qualified soldiers who have completed all necessary qualifications earn the prestigious Army Watchkeeper Pilot brevet (wings) to wear on their uniform.

Across the regiment, soldiers and officers fulfil four main roles:

Aircrew – pilots and mission controllers, supported by Image Analysts from the Intelligence Corps, fly the aircraft and deliver the mission.
Groundcrew – Groundcrew prepare, launch and recover the aircraft and ensure it is safe to fly.
Engineers – REME aviation engineers maintain all elements of the system in line with aviation engineering standards.
Support staff – specialist flight operations, logistics and administration personnel provide essential support to the deployed detachment.

Key specifications:

Size: 6.5m long, 10.9m wingspan
Take-off weight: 485kg~
Range from ground station: 150km
Cruise speed: 77Kts
Altitude: 16000ft
Aircraft endurance: 14 hours

Incidents during development:

During the development of Watchkeeper, there were some incidents involving the system crashing in the UK. These incidents were all subject to inquiries, the full details of which can be accessed below:

WK050 - 13 June 2018
WK043 - 24 March 2017
WK042 - 3 February 2017
WK006 - 2 November 2015
WK031 - 16 October 2014