The army’s latest “spy in the sky” unmanned aircraft will make its maiden flight over England this week.
Watchkeeper, a reconnaissance and surveillance unmanned air system (UAS), has a wingspan of 35 feet and can fly at an altitude of up to 16,000 feet.
The craft has been designed to target areas of interest for “significantly longer” than existing systems, providing clear surveillance pictures to troops on the ground.
The plane boasts two sensors – a day and night camera which produces 24-hour high-definition images and a radar sensor, allowing it to operate in all conditions.
These images are relayed direct to a ground control station which acts as the aircraft’s cockpit – reducing the need to deploy troops to “potentially dangerous” situations.
Watchkeeper, which has been tested in west Wales since 2010 and is nearing the end of its trials, is expected to take a “significant role” in future military campaigns.
This week, experienced pilots will fly Watchkeeper in restricted airspace over the Ministry of Defence’s Salisbury Plain training area in Wiltshire, overseen by military air traffic controllers.
The army is due to begin its own training later this year.
Colonel Mark Thornhill, commander of 1st Artillery Brigade, said: “Watchkeeper is a state-of-the-art system coming in to service now. It can fly for longer, it flies off rough strips, it has better sensors.
“Watchkeeper is designed specifically to support worldwide operations in many different locations.
“Watchkeeper is a fantastic capability because it will allow us to provide real-time imagery back to the ground commander so that he can then take appropriate action depending on what he sees and what he learns from that imagery.
“Therefore, he will be able to perform in a much better fashion and make much better operational decisions based on the imagery we are providing to him.”
Watchkeeper, which is being developed by Thales UK, is unarmed and does not carry any weapons.
Prototype craft have already clocked up 500 hours of flying time in west Wales.
Matt Moore, head of Thales UK’s UAS business, said: “When it gets to its operating altitude, when it is employed operationally, it is inaudible. You cannot hear it and you visually can’t see it either.
“It is that high up, the shape, the size, the low signature profile of the airframe, it is very difficult to see amongst the terrain and the environment in the air.”
Watchkeeper will provide additional capability to the fleet – which has already completed 120,000 flying hours – once in service this summer.
Lance Corporal Christopher Gazey, a UAS analyst for 1st Artillery Brigade, said images would help give service personnel a clearer assessment of the situation.
“You can tell the difference between a man, a woman and a child,” L-Cpl Gazey said.
“We could be looking ahead of a friendly force convoy, they could be moving down the road and we could be looking two to three kilometres ahead of that convoy out of the troops.
“We could be looking ahead to see if any insurgents were laying IEDs (improvised explosive devices); if we observed that we could let the ground call-sign know, they would stop and we’d essentially save lives there.”