LONDON — The Watchkeeper unmanned air system (UAS) has received what is effectively its type certification approval from Britain’s Military Aviation Authority, some three years after the vehicle was scheduled to enter service.
The Thales UK tactical UAS has been awarded a Statement of Type Design Assurance (STDA) from the Military Aviation Authority clearing the British Army to undertake military flying in the appropriate airspace.
The STDA was created by the aviation authority for air platforms already in their development phase. Under the safety agencies rules, only aircraft projects initiated after the aviation authority was formed qualify for a type certificate.
Operational deployment of the Elbit Systems Hermes 450-based machine remains dependent on a release to service certificate. That’s expected by early 2014 as the British military puts the finishing touches to Watchkeeper’s associated lines of development such as training and infrastructure.
In a statement, Thales said the “STDA provided assurance that the Watchkeeper air vehicle and software has reached an acceptable level for design safety and integrity to meet the current stage of the systems development.”
It’s the first British type approval for an unmanned system since the aviation authority was formed in 2010 in the wake of a crash of a Royal Air Force Nimrod, which killed 14 people.
A subsequent report blamed the crash on sloppy safety and maintenance standards by the Royal Air Force and defense contractors.
The British Ministry of Defence awarded Thales a £700 million deal in 2005 to develop the Watchkeeper system in partnership with Elbit Systems, which provided the Hermes 450 UAS.
Technical issues, the long approval process and capability additions to achieve theater-entry standards for service in Afghanistan have pushed costs over £800 million.
A by-the-hour service using the Hermes 450 has filled the capability gap for the British in Afghanistan ahead of Watchkeeper’s entry into service.
It remains unclear whether the British will deploy Watchkeeper to Afghanistan. British combat troops are scheduled to be out of the country by the end of next year, but it’s possible a surveillance capability may be required for a time after that date.
The French military has been testing the UAV.