The U.K.’s Watchkeeper programme.


14th Feb 2011

By the end of this year, plans will be in place to withdraw one of the British Armed Force’s most successful aerial Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platforms from service. Project Lydian, the programme that has seen Hermes 450 unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) performing airborne intelligence gathering for the British Army in Afghanistan, is due to come to end up with the draw-down of the Hermes 450s and the handover to the eagerly anticipated Project Watchkeeper.

Project Lydian has been in operation in Afghanistan for the past three years, when it was instigated in response to an urgent operational requirement (UOR) contract issued by the UK government. The programme is run by an Elbit Systems and Thales joint venture known as UAS Tactical System (U-TacS), and has provided vital ISTAR support to UK forces on current operations.

The programme is run on a highly innovative ‘fly-by-the-hour’ agreement in order to ensure high system availability as well as low whole-life costs. The final Hermes 450 UAS contract was issued by the MoD in April 2009, and is scheduled to run until the aircraft are removed from service following the deployment of project Watchkeeper.

A big step forward

Eighty per cent of the army’s airborne ISTAR is provided by Thales, and the Hermes 450 UAVs have provided the core of the British Army’s ISTAR equipment capability. They have significantly increased the intelligence available for UK Armed Forces operations in Afghanistan, with the Hermes 450s amassing over 43,000 flight hours between them. This ISTAR capability is set to be dramatically increased with the change-over to the Watchkeeper programme, with the army expecting to take the system into theatre by late 2011.
‘The biggest difference between project Lydian and Watchkeeper is that with Project Lydian we are performing a service; we own the equipment work in Afghanistan with the British Army providing the vehicles, support, ground control stations (GCSs) and people in order to keep those vehicles in the air,’ Thales UK's business director ISTAR, Nick Miller told Asia-Pacific Defence Review. ‘Watchkeeper is a procurement programme, so we provide the kit to the Army and they decide what to do with it and when to take it into theatre – it might be late this year, maybe in 2012’.

The handover will be completely managed by the British Army. Thales will continue to run their current five tasking (or mission) lines in Afghanistan while the Watchkeeper programme is instigated and built up, at which point the Hermes 450s will be drawn down accordingly, something Miller expects to be complete ‘within the next year or so’.


Thales UK was awarded the Prime Contract to deliver the UK’s Watchkeeper tactical UAV system in 2005. The project aims to provide an ISTAR UAV system capable of meeting worldwide operating conditions for full integration into the UK Armed Forces operational environment. Key user requirements included flexible take-off and landing options, all weather performance and dual payload capability; and a big part of the programme has been the establishment of a dedicated training facility and UK air space for UAV testing, both of which are major firsts.

ParcAberporth in Ceredigion, Wales, the operational test and evaluation centre for UAVs, managed by QinetiQ through the West Wales UAV centre, and the training facility based in Larkhill, have both enabled extensive trials to be carried out in UK airspace, and have opened up discussions with homeland security for the use of Watchkeeper –type programmes with civil homeland security groups. The Watchkeeper UAV flew for the first time at ParcAberporth on 14 April 2010, when it undertook a 20-minute flight as part of the programme to demonstrate that the UAV meets the robust safety and airworthiness criteria required to fly UAVs.

All elements of Watchkeeper have been tested and demonstrated for the MoD; including the full air vehicle system, Watchkeeper data-links, radar controlled automatic take-off and landing, complete payload testing, GCS software, and autonomous systems flight control and video imagery download. Since then the Watchkeeper programme has continued ‘as planned’ according to Miller. ‘Our joint trial programme has resulted in very successful flights in Israel, ParcAberporth, as well as Salisbury Plains, and we have lots of hours under our belts. We are currently testing mission planning – testing the envelope of the specification and it’s going very well’.

Tomorrow’s battlespace

The Watchkeeper system is a multi-sensor, multi-mission solution designed to meet a broad range of requirements as defined by the UK. It combines air vehicles, sensor suites and ground-based exploitation segments to provide a key component of the UK's drive for Network Enabled Capability (NEC). It will enable commanders to detect and track targets for many hours without the need to deploy troops into potentially sensitive or dangerous areas, and in its developed Thales UK has focused on interoperability, survivability, persistence, and endurance in order to meet the fast-evolving needs of the UK armed forces and increase commanders’ awareness of the battlespace and make operations safer.

In terms of what the Watchkeeper programme will specifically bring to the British Armed Force’s ISTAR capabilities in-theatre, one of the biggest upward steps is the system’s dual-payload electro-optic/infra red (EO/IR) imaging and synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator (SAR/GMTI) capabilities. ‘This is really key to the new benefits’, Miller explains. ‘Basically we’re taking the picture to the operators more quickly. We’re bringing greater stand-off range, we can see through the clouds which means we can fly higher and, as a result, more quietly.

‘Most importantly, the ground moving target can monitor and track activity to monitor trends and life patterns. Through continuous coverage and the building up of information over time, we’re creating rich information layers and enabling trend analysis.

The Watchkeeper imagery on demand capability is also an important factor. The speed at which video, radar and imagery is collected, processed and disseminated means the operator gets his picture very quickly. And due to the increased autonomy of the UAV, the operators are free to observe the imagery as opposed to having to physically fly the vehicle; they are exploiting the data and supporting the mission, and effectively taking a step back from the finer details and focusing on the big picture.

Networked battlespace

One of the single most important aspects of the new Watchkeeper system is the advances it will bring to the UK’s networked ground environment. While the Hermes 450 is a single line system, beaming imagery from the UAV to its GCS, the Watchkeeper system has the ability to network all the UAVs and GCSs together. ‘This is key to the benefits of the system’, Miller says. ‘The system can relay information between UAVs, attack parties, and remote viewing terminals that are in vehicles driving out with deployed troops. These troops can view the imagery and control the UAV payload, giving them a greater degree of situational awareness than ever seen before. And all these networked systems are talking to each other and global command, as well as being sent back to the UK via data-links for detailed analysis, all thanks to Watchkeeper’s modular ground environment’.

The Watchkeeper GCS, as well as being able to operate up to three Watchkeeper UAVs simultaneously, can also control medium altitude and small UAVs, creating not just a network of its own UAVs but whole families of UAVs deployed by the army. 

A big part of the technology leap involved in the Watchkeeper is the in-built autonomy of the UAV. ‘Watchkeeper UAVs are not just a UAV following a flight path’, Miller explains. ‘The autonomous capabilities we’ve built in have fundamentally changed the way we think of a UAV flying. We’re no longer talking about a UAV taking directions from its pilot or operator, we’re talking about a UAV that feeds information back to the GCS and prompts the operators to support its mission’.

An example of the sophistication of the autonomous systems is the landing system, known as the Thales Magic ATOLS (automatic take-off and landing) system, which is the only solely radar-controlled automatic launch system in the world. The system launches and lands the aircraft without the use of an external pilot; the UAV uses its sensors to prepare for take-off, prompts the GCS crew to double-check air traffic control, the UAV takes off and carries out its mission.

What all of this autonomy brings is a lesser requirement for personnel, resources and control stations; and more air vehicles and mission task lines carrying out vital work. ‘The fact that the UAV does a lot more itself without human intervention means less exhausted pilots, less fatigued eyes being relied on to pick up threats from within the battlespace; and all this has been a very important driver for the overall cost-effectiveness of the programme – less input for greater output’.


The logistic footprint of Watchkeeper is very low. The system requires a crew of two personnel to fly up to three Watchkeeper UAVs simultaneously – a dramatic remove from the days of one GCS for each airborne UAV. The first requirement is for a system operator, who controls the mission, the second for a payload operator who tracks the information being fed from the UAV sensors.

More important than a UAV’s ability to simply gather data on the battlespace is the ability for the system to convert that data into actionable intelligence – something the whole Watchkeeper system is designed to do. The operator-friendly nature of Watchkeeper allows it to fulfil its ultimate goal, which is to put more eyes in the sky, allowing aerial surveillance to be carried out at lower risk to human life and with greater sophistication.


In terms of on-going support for the programme, in April last year Thales UK awarded U-TacS a $70 million contract to provide Contractor Logistics Support (CLS) services for the Watchkeeper project. U-TacS provides services for development, integration, test flights and manufacture of the UAS' sub-systems, including the unmanned aircraft, the ground control station, Elbit Systems Electro-Optics Elop's D-CoMPASS payload and other systems. In October the company was awarded a follow-on UOR contract by Thales UK, which will see the programme supported throughout the next 18 months. 

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