Thales is introducing an export variant of its Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), originally developed for the UK. The first export contract being pursued by the company is Poland, seeking a UAV solution for its military forces. Watchkeeper is also one of two finalist tactical UAV systems being considered by the French Army as a successor for the Sperwer, originally produced by Sagem.
“Watchkeeper X is based on a ground-breaking, world-leading unmanned aircraft system that was designed specifically for the requirements of the British Army,” said Pierre Eric Pommellet, Thales Executive Vice-President, Defence Mission Systems. “We have now taken the knowledge and expertise that we have gained over the history of the program and looked at how we can make it more flexible, effective and readily available for our customers, to help them address the different operational contexts they may face.”
While Watchkeeper was designed primarily for Intelligence, Surveillance and Target-Acquisition Reconnaissance (ISTAR) applications, Thales is currently offering the ‘Watchkeeper X’ drone in a weaponized version, meeting the specific Polish interest in an armed UAV. Another unique advantage of WK-X is its ability to operate from rough, makeshift landing strips, enabling rapid deployment in theaters without paved airstrips.
Watchkeeper X (WK-X) is based on the company’s fully airworthy, certified to CS23/STANAG 4671 airworthiness standards, and cleared for operation in zero visibility, harsh weather conditions and extreme temperatures. Based on Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 platform, Watchkeeper has an operational endurance exceeding 16 hours, operating at ranges in excess of 140 km., with a maximum transit speed of 95 knots. The ground-based mission control system can support several aircraft in the air, sustaining 24/7 surveillance missions.
The drone employs a dual-sensor payload configuration, conforming to a standard 15” gimbal and integral sensor cross-cuing functionality, supporting VIS/IR cameras, radar, communication intelligence (COMINT) and communications electronic support measures (ESM).
The platform is configured with underwing hard points, which can carry external fuel tanks, pods or lightweight weapons, such as Thales’ FFLMM. WK-X provides effective surveillance, identification and targeting with pin point accuracy. On board sensors are employed to acquire and designate targets, and, in cases of engagement of time-sensitive targets, operators can use on-board weapons to act on the intelligence obtained by the drone in real time.
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[ismember]While the French competition is between Thales and Sagem, the Polish competition places the Watchkeeper’s original designer, Elbit Systems, in an unusual position. Under the Gryf (Griffin) program, Poland is seeking to field 12 tactical-class UAV systems. A tender is expected soon, and the winners are expected to be selected by mid-2016. For this proposal, Thales has teamed with the Polish WB Electronics, part of the WB Group. This partnership is of critical importance for Thales, as Poland insists on having full access and control of the system’s software, mission computer, cryptographic systems and data transmission devices. This access will enable Polish engineers and authorities to have full control of the drone’s armament system.
But Thales could find the Israeli company Elbit Systems, its partner in the Watchkeeper program through the U-TacS UK-based JV, on the other side of the fence, competing on the Polish tender. Elbit has teamed with the Polish company PGZ to offer the Hermes 450 UAV for the Gryf program. It has also teamed with its bitter competitor IAI to offer a solution based on Israeli systems, under the Government-to-Government deal lead by Israel’s Ministry of Defense. “we want to manufacture our own medium range UAV systems, based on the Hermes 450 platform.”
Wojciech Dąbrowski, President of the PGZ Company said. Should the Polish MOD selects the Israeli Hermes 900 MALE UAV systems for the Zephyr program, the infrastructure established for Hermes 450 could be used to support both the Gryf tactical and Zephyr MALE UAV systems. [/ismember]