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British Army’s autonomous aircraft to be showcased at world’s top defence exhibition

Watchkeeper, the British Army’s amazing Remotely Piloted Air System, is set to be displayed at ExCeL, London as part of this years’ Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) event.

The biennial exhibition acts as a forum between governments, national armed forces, industry and academics and runs from September 14-17.

Watchkeeper is set to be a big attraction with visitors to the event, having proved its worth over one of the UK’s largest training areas this summer by providing ‘eye in the sky’ capability across a range of activities.

Over 50 personnel from the Royal Artillery’s specialist aviation 47th Regiment were involved, launching Watchkeeper to join exercises on Salisbury Plain Training Area.

Flying at heights of up to 16,000 feet the autonomous air vehicle, which provides state of the art radar and Full Motion Video, can find and track targets across the battlefield. This allows the pilots to help coordinate strikes from Artillery or Attack Helicopters, or send imagery back to specialist Intelligence Analysts who aid commanders as they make critical decisions.

Whilst Watchkeeper is an autonomous capability it doesn’t fly itself; it still requires the expertise of a pilot as recently qualified Captain Goodman explains:

“When you fly a crewed aircraft, you fly by the ‘seat of your pants’ as the saying goes. You don’t get that with Watchkeeper, you’re flying off your instruments, you’re flying off your payload, and you could be many, many miles away from your subject matter. It’s different, you feel detached, yet you feel in control."

"Watchkeeper is absolutely cutting-edge capability. It was the largest military uncrewed aircraft to fly over UK airspace, what this provides is endurance, imagery, and timely intelligence."

Another first has been the use of modern deployable infrastructure called the Forward Maintenance Facility. These large pop-up inflatable workshops have allowed the specialised ground crew and engineers to maintain the aircraft and ready them for flight.

Lance Corporal Hellon is one of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers’ aircraft technicians:

“It has allowed us to get more familiar with the kit, get more flying hours in. This has given us all more experience of the aircraft which has proven invaluable. Together with the Forward Maintenance Facility we were able to work on the aircraft constantly ensuring it was ready to fly whenever needed.

Everyone has worked closely together, we settled into a rhythm and were able to make sure that Watchkeeper kept flying. People have now seen what this air vehicle can do and have realised it is a great piece of kit and will be of great benefit to the Army for many years to come.”

Lieutenant Colonel Britton MC, Commanding Officer 47th Regiment Royal Artillery said:

“It was a great opportunity for us to fly in a much more realistic manner. It allowed us to integrate on Salisbury Plain Training Area with infantry Brigades, our aviation colleagues including Apache and Wildcat helicopters and to observe from a distance live firing from artillery units. We’ve proved that we are in a position where we can take this capability forwards.

The aircrew could integrate with troops on exercises, the ground crew were able to hone their skills preparing and launching the aircraft, and the aircraft technicians in our inflatable infrastructure were able to work in a more realistic manner. As a collective we’ve proved that we can perform this role anywhere in the world.”

There is no doubt that the deployment has been a great success as Captain Goodman reflects:

“I think the more people understand Watchkeeper’s capabilities the more they want to use it. This has given us the ideal test bed to demonstrate to the wider army what we are capable of doing and the difference we can make to soldiering now and in the future.”