Technology

Watchkeeper: Up Close With The UK-Built Drone That's Been Used In Afghanistan

Using a range of cameras and sensors the uncrewed aircraft system can see things up to 200km away.

Watchkeeper is the Army's intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) drone, designed to be used in warfighting as well as a wide number of other scenarios.

Able to reach altitudes of up to 16,000ft and stay in the air for up to 14 hours, the tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has proved itself an essential asset on the battlefield.

It lets the Army see things up to 200km away and has been used successfully in Afghanistan, where it has played a crucial role in protecting British troops. 

Speaking to Forces News, Captain Rob Goodman, a Watchkeeper pilot from 47 Regiment Royal Artillery, said: "Watchkeeper is absolutely a cutting edge capability.

"It's the largest unmanned aircraft to fly within UK airspace at the moment and that comes with unique challenges but, for us, absolutely fantastic opportunities.

"What this provides us, as an army, is endurance, imagery, and really timely intelligence.

"It's the future of the Army, the future of the MOD, this is the way we're going... and we're right at the start of it but we've come huge leaps and bounds in the last few months and now are ready to deploy on operations," he added.

Watch: The Watchkeeper up close.

Built in the UK by Thales, the Watchkeeper is an autonomous system that always requires a 'human in the loop' to authorise all aspects of its operations.

Its most common use is identifying assets on the ground and it is fitted with radar technology and a ground movement target indicator.

Training and Operations

The Watchkeeper has been operational since 2018 but a three-month training deployment by 47 Regiment Royal Artillery, has pushed the boundaries of the system's capabilities.

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Britton, Commanding Officer, 47 Regiment Royal Artillery, has been part of a battery of about 50 personnel, who have been operating the drone at RAF Keevil.

He said: "This is the first time we have deployed in this manner, it's the first time we have been self-sustaining, it's the first time we have been able to prove we can do this in effect, anywhere in the world.

"We have been able to integrate with Army units on Salisbury Plain. We've had live downlinks going down to troops on the ground, we've been able to pass information and intelligence to Wildcat, Apache, we've seen live firing with artillery, so we've really been able to prove to ourselves that we can do this job in every respect."

A cutting-edge simulator is used to train all pilots ahead of live flying, with those eventually fully qualified to do so earning the Army Watchkeeper Pilot brevet (wings) to wear on their uniform.

Across the regiment, soldiers and officers take up four main roles when manning the drone:

Aircrew – pilots and mission controllers, supported by Image Analysts from the Intelligence Corps, work together to fly the aircraft and secure any reconnaissance needed.

Groundcrew – they are in charge of launching, recovery and preparation before a mission is undertaken.

Engineers – aviation engineers from Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers maintain all elements of the system.

Support staff – specialist flight operations, logistics and administrative personnel provide ongoing support to the aircraft.