Saudi Arabia says it has developed an armed MALE unmanned aircraft capable of firing weapons it has also developed on its own, pointing to unsuspected capabilities of its nascent defense industry. (Twitter photo)

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18/05/2017

NRL Tests Autonomous 'Soaring with Solar' ISR Concept

WASHINGTON --- The Solar Photovoltaic and Autonomous Soaring Base Program and the U.S. Marine Corps' Expeditionary Energy Office (E2O) want to improve the ability of unmanned platforms to support 24-7 information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Vehicle Research Section and Photovoltaic Section are building on the proven concept of autonomous cooperative soaring of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Their research investigates the presence of solar photovoltaics (PV) to the cooperative autonomous soaring techniques, which enables long endurance flights of unmanned sailplanes that use the power of the sun. By doing so, the warfighter will greatly benefit because it will reduce the amount of batteries or fuel they must carry into battle, and improve the availability of continuous coverage of ISR assets. "NRL has twice flown our solar UAV [based on the SBXC sailplane] over 10 hours using a combination of solar photovoltaics and autonomous soaring as part of the 'solar-soaring' research program," said Dr. Dan Edwards, aerospace engineer. "This research is investigating the value of combining autonomous soaring algorithms and solar photovoltaics for capturing energy from the environment to extend flight endurance and mission operations of an aircraft." A photovoltaic array, custom built in NRL's Vehicle Research Section and Photovoltaic Section, is integrated into the center wing panel of the PV-SBXC aircraft as a drop-in replacement to the original wing. A power management and distribution system converts the power from the solar arrays into direct current (DC) voltage, which the electric motor can use for propulsion, or recharge a 'smart battery.' Additionally, an autonomous soaring software algorithm - that would typically monitor the local vertical winds around the aircraft - commands the aircraft to orbit in any nearby updrafts, very similar to soaring birds. However, the algorithm was disabled for the two solar flights in order to assess the solar-only performance. Passive soaring - meaning no specific maneuvers are attempted to catch thermals - was still allowed, to let the aircraft turn the motor off if altitude increased because of an updraft along the aircraft's pre-defined flight path. The autonomous soaring software was tested extensively in previous flight demonstrations in late October 2015. The UAV with solar arrays built at NRL using SunPower Inc. solar cells, flew for 10 hours, 50 minutes on October 14, 2016. Takeoff occurred at 7:20 a.m. at 95 percent battery state of charge and landing occurred at 6:10 p.m. with the battery at 10 percent state of charge. Thermal activity was very good in the middle of the day and 40 percent of the flight was spent with the motor off, and the solar array partly recharged the battery while the motor was off. The UAV equipped with solar wings incorporated PV arrays from Alta Devices, Inc. It flew for 11 hours, 2 minutes on April 19, 2017. Takeoff occurred at 7:46 a.m., approximately an hour after sunrise, with the battery's state of charge at 90 percent. Landing occurred at 6:48 p.m., approximately an hour before sunset, with the battery's state of charge at 26 percent. Thermal activity was very weak and almost all of the flight was spent running the motor. Near solar noon, the solar array provided sufficient power to cruise on solar power alone. The power management system for both flights was provided by Packet Digital, Inc., as part of a grant from the North Dakota Renewable Energy Council. "The experiments confirm significant endurance gains are possible by leveraging thermal updrafts and incident solar radiation, rather than ignoring these free sources of energy," Edwards said. "Future testing will focus on quantifying the trade space between improvements in solar cell efficiency and combining with autonomous soaring for improved solar-recharging." The Vehicle Research Section at NRL conducts research to develop technologies for autonomous, affordably expendable, unmanned systems that carry a wide variety of payloads for numerous mission scenarios. The Section is composed of aeronautical, aerospace, electrical, and mechanical engineers, scientists, and technicians dedicated to advancing the state-of-the-art in unmanned systems technology. The Photovoltaics Section at NRL conducts research to develop photovoltaic (solar cell) technologies to enable logistics free, renewable, portable, power sources for the warfighter. The Section is composed of physicists, electrical engineers, and chemists dedicated to advancing the state-of-the-art in PV power sources and systems. -ends-
17/05/2017

GA Wins $400M to Produce 36 Reaper Unmanned Aircraft

General Atomics - Aeronautical Systems Inc., Poway, California, has been awarded a $399,979,895 firm-fixed-price contract for MQ-9 Reaper production. Contractor will produce 36 MQ-9 Reaper aircraft in the fiscal 2016 production configuration. Work will be performed at Poway, California, and is expected to be complete by Aug. 31, 2020. This award is the result of a sole-source acquisition. Fiscal 2016 aircraft procurement funds in the amount of $399,979,895 are being obligated at the time of award. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is the contracting activity (FA8620-15-G-4040 0001). -ends-
17/05/2017

Northrop Wins $304M for Next 3 Triton Unmanned Aircraft

Northrop Grumman Systems Corp., San Diego, California, is being awarded $303,936,000 for modification P00017 to a previously awarded fixed-price-incentive contract (N00019-15-C-0002) for the procurement of three low-rate initial production Lot 2 MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft. In addition, this modification provides for one main operation control station, one forward operation control station, trade studies, and tooling. Work will be performed in San Diego, California (42.9 percent); Red Oak, Texas (11.3 percent); Baltimore, Maryland (11.3 percent); Salt Lake City, Utah (8.7 percent); Bridgeport, West Virginia (6.3 percent); Indianapolis, Indiana (3.7 percent); Palmdale, California (2.2 percent); Moss Point, Mississippi (1.6 percent); Santa Clarita, California (1.2 percent); Montreal, Quebec, Canada (0.9 percent); Vandalia, Ohio (0.5 percent); Medford, New York (0.3 percent), and various locations within the continental U.S. (9.1 percent). Work is expected to be completed in April 2021. Fiscal 2016 and 2017 aircraft procurement (Navy) funds in the amount of $303,936,000 will be obligated at time of award, none of which will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. The Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, Maryland, is the contracting [authority]. -ends-
16/05/2017

Israel to Replace Maritime Patrol Aircraft with Heron 1 UAVs

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) is replacing its manned Sea Scan maritime patrol aircraft with Israel Aerospace Industries' (IAI) maritime version of the Heron 1 (Shoval) unmanned air vehicle systems set to take over in this role. The maritime Heron 1 system will be displayed at IMDEX ASIA 2017 in Singapore between 16-18.5.17. The IAF ordered additional Heron 1 UAV Systems equipped with a maritime radar and electro-optical payload that will make them more suitable for their growing role in carrying out maritime patrol and intelligence gathering missions on everyday bases. The maritime model of Heron 1 consists of an advanced electro-optical payload - the MOSP, made by the TAMAM division of IAI and the lightweight airborne maritime surveillance radar made by ELTA. The maritime Herons will provide comprehensive protection of naval borders and strategic infrastructures to meet the operational needs. Shaul Shahar, IAI EVP and General Manager of the Military Aircraft Group, said: "The Heron 1 has proved its capability to perform long-range, long-endurance maritime patrol missions. Thanks to its unique features and upgraded payloads, the Heron 1 provides a better solution for the maritime patrol mission than currently exists at the IAF." IAI Ltd. is Israel's largest aerospace and defense company and a globally recognized technology and innovation leader, specializing in developing and manufacturing advanced, state-of-the-art systems for air, space, sea, land, cyber and homeland security. -ends-
16/05/2017

Textron’s Fury Glide Bomb Hits Moving Targets

TAMPA, Fla. --- Textron Systems Weapon & Sensor Systems announced today the successful testing of the Fury lightweight precision guided glide munition against moving targets at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. This test marks a significant milestone, as it marks the completion of the Fury weapon’s development. The Weapon & Sensor Systems team conducted 13 test flights for the Fury weapon, which accumulated to a total of 23.8 flight hours between captive carriage, survey flights and 10 weapon releases from unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Two tests were conducted from Textron Systems’ own Shadow® Tactical UAS at an altitude of 8,000 feet and a 1.5 kilometer standoff against a moving target. Both munitions successfully impacted the target. These results demonstrate end-to-end testing of the Fury weapon and improve both system maturity and Technology Readiness Level (TRL). “Based on the results achieved during Fury flight testing, we are pleased with the development progress of the Fury lightweight precision guided munition,” says Weapon & Sensor Systems Senior Vice President & General Manager Brian Sinkiewicz. The Fury weapon uses a common interface for rapid integration on multiple manned and unmanned platforms. The weapon’s tri-mode fuzing – impact, height of burst and delay – further enables a single Fury to address a broad target set, ranging from static and moving light armored vehicles to small boats and dismounted personnel. Fury is guided by a GPS-aided inertial navigation system with a Semi-Active Laser terminal guidance, enabling engagement of moving targets. Textron Systems’ businesses develop and integrate products, services and support for aerospace and defense customers, as well as civil and commercial customers including those in law enforcement, security, border patrol and critical infrastructure protection around the globe. -ends-
16/05/2017

Kazakh Navy’s New ECA Minehunting System Operational

The Unmanned Mine Counter Measure Integrated System (UMIS) delivered and installed by ECA Group onboard the new mine hunter “10750E Class” of the Kazakhstan Navy, has successfully gone through Sea Acceptance Trials (SAT). Built by the Russian shipyard SNSZ in St Petersburg, this first mine hunter has reached Aktau through the rivers and channels by the end of the winter. Fitted with ECA Group’s MCM system this MCMV will be capable to survey and protect the North-Eastern coast of the Caspian Sea in a fully unmanned mode keeping the ship and its crew in a safer position. Composed of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) A9, Identification and mine disposal vehicles (EMDS) K-STER and a single multifunction console integrating the mission management software suite, this ECA Group UMIS system provides a fast and cost effective solution to MCM operations from initial seabed survey, target detection and classification down to final identification and neutralization. With their high-resolution sonar and video camera, the A9 AUV and identification vehicle K-STER I are not limited to MCM missions and will also provide the Kazakhstan Navy with maritime surveillance capabilities such as Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. Always committed in a long-term support with its customer, ECA Group has also established a partnership with a local company which will be in charge of the maintenance of the system and the training of the crew. -ends-
15/05/2017

US Seen Dropping Ethics Considerations In Drone Assassinations

During the Obama presidency, precision was not just about hitting the right target, and it was more than mere accuracy. It was an ethos, one that enshrined the liberal-American desire to be just in times of war while still ensuring victory. Armed drones and the precision missiles they deployed were said to epitomize this desire. Drones were, the president stated, part of a “just war—a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.” These claims were contentious. People such as Nobel laureate Desmond M. Tutu declared that these weapons undermined America’s “moral standards,” and non-governmental organizations such as Airwars—which monitors civilian casualties resulting from airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Libya—exposed the true cost of precision. For the Obama administration, though, drones continued to offer the alluring ability to kill at a distance while mitigating the cost to innocent life. Although mistakes were made, in an age when the United States led the world in the use of drones, these weapons appeared to offer a simple and unrivaled solution to the complexities of war. In the post-Obama era, however, the drone landscape has changed. Not only has American dominance over the use of drones eroded—with a plethora of state and non-state actors acquiring drone technologies—but with the rise of a new presidential administration, the American search for just and proportionate precision appears to have been called off. The long quest for “precision.” American precision warfare was never perfect. Nevertheless, during the Obama years, the administration made genuine attempts to minimize civilian casualties. Indeed, the moral and strategic search for precision has a long history in American warfare; the origins of Obama-era precision can be traced back to the Cold War nuclear context of the 1980s. Albert Wohlstetter, a prominent American nuclear strategist of that era, argued that conventional precision missiles could offer an alternative to massive nuclear destruction in the event of hostilities with a nuclear armed state. Thanks to advances in computer data gathering and transmission, missile range and yield, and offensive accuracies and reliability, precision missiles could provide an effective “discriminate deterrence,” Wohlstetter wrote. The logic was that precision missiles could guarantee the pinpoint destruction of enemy military targets around the globe without resorting to the nuclear option—and the civilian casualties that would come from nuclear war. This strategy was not used in the Cold War, but in the post-Cold War era precision weapons dominated American warfare. Building upon the initial success of the Gulf War that ended in 1991, the Kosovo War of 1998 and 1999 marked a fundamental milestone in the way the United States conducted warfare. It was within this conflict that precision was achieved with near-perfection, paving the way for it to become a staple of American strategic thought. No longer did American political and strategic thinkers need to concern themselves with justifying a heavy cost to both civilian and American military lives. Instead—through the combination of unarmed surveillance drones, real-time video transmission, and Tomahawk cruise missiles—precision increased, the costs of war were reduced, and the strategic advantage was maintained. Despite some high-profile incidents in which civilians were killed, Secretary of Defense William Cohen declared Kosovo to be “the most precise application of air power in history.” There were zero NATO combat deaths in Kosovo, so for the United States the war was seemingly cost-free and bloodless. These perceived successes had a lasting impact on American warfare. (end of excerpt) Click here for the full story, on the Bulletin of American Scientists website. -ends-
15/05/2017

'Shadow' UAV Scans the Skies During Exercise in Germany

HOHENFELS, Germany --- "Shadow is airborne at this time," Army Sgt. Phillip Marlowe said over the radio, as he announced the successful launch of a RQ-7B Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System during the Saber Junction 17 exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center here, May 10. Marlowe is the unmanned aerial vehicle crew chief with UAV Platoon Delta Troop, Regimental Engineer Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment. Once airborne, the Shadow unmanned aircraft is capable of up to six hours of flight time providing live aerial imagery directly to the Regimental Tactical Operations Center. "As a regimental asset we provide 'eyes forward,'" said Army 1st Lt. Chelsea Pellicano, the UAV platoon leader. Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance Platform An intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, Shadow-gathered information directly supports ground troop efforts as part of the training exercise evaluating the regiment's ability to conduct unified land operations. Part of land operations includes pulling security duty and avoiding detection -- two challenges Delta Troop had to adjust for since their arrival here. "Normally we operate and launch from an airstrip, but here, in order to make the training more realistic, we have positioned ourselves in concealment, maneuvering our Ground Control Station from cover to a flight position and then back into cover," said Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brandon Sutton, UAV operations officer. The UAV platoon remained undetected by opposition forces. Flight Operations "Operating with a crew of 15, half our typical size, we adapted our launch position in a challenging terrain all while remaining tactical, hidden and functional," Pellicano said. Focusing on quick change-over times from launch to land, along with maintaining the three Shadow UAV systems, the team has worked together to run continuous missions during the two-week exercise. Flight operations include two daytime launches and two night launches. Those missions deliver an intelligence payload along with the crew's ability to coordinate direct fires with aviators. In addition to an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, the Shadow conducts man-unmanned teaming, or MUM-T, with Apache helicopters by "lasering" on a target that can then guide aircraft-mounted hellfire missiles. By enabling pilots to locate and pursue targets rapidly, the Shadow adds another critical capability. -ends-
12/05/2017

TAI, Antonov to Cooperates on UAV Systems

İSTANBUL, Turkey --- Turkish Aerospace Industries, Inc. (TAI), ranking among the top hundred global players in aerospace and defense arena, and ANTONOV Company, one of the leading aerospace companies for commercial and military aircrafts in the world, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The MoU Signing Ceremony took place at TAI Stand on the second day of the 13th International Defence Industry Fair − IDEF 2017. TAI and ANTONOV intend to cooperate on aerospace programs including but not limited to joint development of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Systems. The signing ceremony was held in presence of Oleksandr Turchinov, the Secretary of NSDC of Ukraine, head of the official delegation, and Roman Romanov, Director General of SC UkrOboronProm. -ends-
12/05/2017

USAF Releases MQ-9A Accident Investigation Report

LANGLEY, Va. --- A pilot’s misprioritization of checklist tasks and failure to observe aircraft warnings led to the crash of an MQ-9A Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft on the Nevada Test and Training Range June 7, 2016, according to an Air Combat Command Abbreviated Accident Investigation Board report released today. The aircraft, valued at $11.1 million, was assigned to the 432nd Wing, Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, and was destroyed on impact. There were no injuries or damage to private property. The MQ-9A was performing a training mission at the time of mishap. After the launch and recovery element successfully flew the aircraft to its cruising altitude, they began the process to hand over the aircraft to the mishap aircrew. Subsequently, the mishap pilot placed the aircraft in a power setting that was too low to maintain level flight. The pilot was primarily focused on checklist procedures and did not initially observe the stall warnings. Despite later power increases in an attempt to recover the aircraft, the pilot was unsuccessful. -ends-

Analysis and Background

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04/05/2017

Russia Works to Restore Positions In Drone Development

Unmanned aviation is a dynamically developing industry of modern aircraft construction. Technical and technological achievements boosted the design of new systems. At present drones are engaged by many armies of the world and used in armed conflicts. Our country used to have considerable achievements in the sphere and now works to restore its positions, expert Denis Fedutinov writes in the official blog of the United Aircraft Corporation. MOSCOW --- The former Soviet Union enjoyed a major experience in drone development also in the tactical class. Until recently the Russian army had old Strizh and Reis systems developed by the Tupolev Design Bureau yet in the 1970s and the Stroi-P complex with remote controlled Pchela craft designed by Kulon Research Institute and the Yakovlev bureau in late 1980s. Unfortunately, the economic plight of the transition period in the 1990s stalled the work. The initial pace was lost as a result, the designs got obsolete, the existing technical and scientific experience in the sphere was lost and the country began to considerably lag behind leading foreign producers. The interest in drones revived in Russia in mid-2000s mostly due to the effort of private companies which initiated some steps to create mostly small-class craft. The Russian defense ministry kept displaying little interest in drones for some years. The guideline was however supported by law enforcement agencies - the interior ministry, the Federal Security Service (including the Border Service) and the emergencies ministry. In early and mid-2000s the orders of the defense ministry for the design of domestic drones were very modest. The latest system in the arsenal of the Russian military was tactical Stroi-P with remote controlled Pchela craft designed at the end of the Soviet epoch. In the 1990s the system became morally outdated. In early 2000s the Kulon Institute of the Vega Concern upgraded the complex to Stroi-PD version. The Rybinsk-based Luch Design Bureau of the Vega designed another tactical Tipchak craft. As in the case of Stroi-PD the funds were appropriated mostly for R&D. The Vega Concern and the defense ministry signed a contract for the delivery of one such complex a year which was an absolutely symbolic action. Problems caused by the absence of modern reconnaissance and surveillance drones were exposed by the 2008 situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The defense ministry tried to engage available drones but none of them was capable of fulfilling the mission. The Russian troops were actually blinded. In contrast the Georgian military efficiently engaged the drones bought from the Israeli Elbit Systems Company. As for Stroi-PD, it took off with the use of powder boosters which exposed the launch site. The flight itself could not be stealthy because of the noisy two-stroke engine. The Russian military also complained about the noisy Tipchak tactical drone designed by Vega. It was created in the Luch Design Bureau in Rybinsk. Former Russian Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin said the drone was engaged in the operation in South Ossetia and performed poorly. Besides noise problems, the quality of reconnaissance data was low because of the line TV camera which failed to produce images corresponding to modern requirements. Besides, there were also problems with friend-or-foe system. The developments around the conflict with Georgia became the threshold which made the Russian defense ministry urgently take measures to rectify the stagnant situation with modern drones for the national armed forces. Initially foreign designs were purchased, as well as available systems of domestic companies. R&D to create perspective craft was launched. The first step was the purchase of drones from Israel which is the world leader in the sphere and then an additional batch of drones was assembled in Russia. Plans to buy Israeli drones were first voiced in November 2008 by General Chief-of-Staff Nikolai Makarov. As a result, the defense ministry acquired short-range Bird-Eye 400 and medium-range Searcher Mk II of the Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI). According to the contract signed in 2011, the drones were assembled in Russia by the UZGA Works in Yekaterinburg under Zastava and Forpost brands correspondingly. Major modernization and localization of tactical Forpost production is being considered. The drone is to get some domestically-produced systems, including a secured communications line and state system of identification, as well as GLONASS-based navigational system, radio-technical reconnaissance and data transmission devices, digital aerial survey system and lateral visibility radar. (ends)
12/06/2015

Fly-offs for French Tactical UAV Competition Begin This Month

PARIS --- France’s defense procurement agency will begin the in-flight evaluation of competitors for the future SDT tactical UAV system later this month, allowing selection of the winner by year-end after a second-round review in the fall. The evaluations, each lasting one or two weeks, will take place at Istres air base in south-eastern France. The SDT evaluations will oppose two French companies offering foreign-designed airframes with subsystems and electronics tailored to French needs: Sagem, which is offering its Patroller, and Thales, which is offering the Watchkeeper developed by its British subsidiary, Thales UK, for the British Army. Watchkeeper will be evaluated in late June, and Patroller will follow in early July. Airbus Defence and Space, which had not been invited to bid for the Système de Drone Tactique (SDT) program, submitted an unsolicited offer earlier this year based on the Textron Systems Shadow M2 unmanned system, which it has dubbed Artemis. The company is waiting for feedback from DGA and the French army on its unsolicited offer before making a full-fledged bid. Uncertainties remain as to SDT funding The French army has not specified a number of aircraft or systems, but has defined an operational requirement, leaving industry to come up with proposals on how best to meet it. However, as it now operates 22 Sperwer tactical drones, it is likely that it will ultimately require about 30 Système de Drone Tactique (SDT) aircraft divided into four deployable systems. “The 2014-2019 Military Program Law calls for two complete and deployable SDT systems, comprising 14 operational and training aircraft, to be delivered by 2019,” a DGA spokesman told Defense-Aerospace.com June 10. He added that the competition was formally launched during the fall of 2014, and that it is proceeding as planned, but declined further comment because the competition is ongoing. There are some doubts, given the French air force’s large-scale procurement of Reaper MALE UAVs, the planned development of the Eurodrone 2020 MALE, and the availability of smaller tactical UAVs, whether the French army actually needs to spend so much money to buy large UAVs of its own. “The current worry is that the program might not be completed, as the requirements are very ambitious and demanding, and there is no officially-defined budget,” says a senior official of one of the competing companies. In fact, the SDT program was barely mentioned during May 26 parliamentary hearings on the update to the 2014-2019 defense program law. Gen. Jean-Pierre Bosser, the army chief of staff, simply said that “we expect our current interim SDTs to be replaced by an SDT system,” before moving on to other issues. All three competitors stress the high French content of their offers, the high proportion of production work that will take place in France, and the fact that their solution offers sovereign, autonomous capabilities entirely free of foreign interference, for both operation and support. Sagem, with its Sperwer, is the incumbent; its latest contract was awarded in December 2013, and funded five additional Sperwer systems for delivery in 2015. In addition to those already in service with the 61ème Régiment d’Artillerie, these UAVs will maintain French army capabilities until a replacement enters service by the end of the decade. The three competitors offer three totally different approaches to the French requirement. All three offer broadly similar sensors, but differ notably in their air vehicles, which range from Sagem’s optionally-piloted and self-deployable motor glider; Thales’ updated and “Frenchified” Hermes UAV to the much smaller, and optionally catapult-launched, Shadow M2 planned by Airbus DS. In fact, the difference in size is such that the 250 kg payload of Sagem’s Patroller is heavier than an entire Shadow air vehicle, while at 450 kg empty mass Watchkeeper is less than half as heavy as Patroller. In other words, Watchkeeper is twice as heavy as Artemis, and in turn Patroller is about twice as heavy as Watchkeeper, although they all carry similar types of payloads. Given France’s insistence on maintaining its independent deployment capability, the level of technical and operational sovereignty, and the control of the supply chain, is likely to weigh heavily during the final selection. Watchkeeper Goes French Sagem’s main competitor for the French SDT contract is Thales UK’s Watchkeeper , which was developed from the Elbit Systems Hermes 450 design and adapted to UK requirements. The British Army has ordered 13 Watchkeeper systems, for a total of 54 air vehicles, about 30 of which have been delivered to date. Watchkeeper was deployed by the British Army in Afghanistan. Several aircraft arrived at Camp Bastion, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, in August 2014, and flew its first combat mission on Sept. 16, Lt Col Craig Palmer, the point man for UAVs at British Army HQ, told reporters here June 2. However, it will not attain Full Operational Capability until 2017, he said. Watchkeeper has flown about 500 hours with the British Army, Palmer said, of which 140 hours in Afghanistan and 360 hours from its base in Boscombe Down, in England. British troops prepare a Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle for a mission at Camp Bastion, in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. (UK MoD photo) “Watchkeeper was designed from the outset to generate information superiority [and] its world-class I-Master radar is what is actually adding value. It’s a game-changer” compared to the Hermes, which has no radar, Palmer said. The Watchkeeper variant Thales has offered to France is equipped with mostly French subsystems, including a secure datalink, the same Automatic Take-Off and Landing System (ATOLS) that Thales developed for Watchkeeper, and Thales’ own electro-optical sensors. For the time being, the French army has been offered a Selex ES surface search radar, but alternate radars can also be fitted. For the French proposal, the joint Elbit/Thales datalink fitted to UK Watchkeeper has been replaced by a Thales-developed TMA/TMG 6000 dual-mode (command and ISR data) datalink, and Thales Executive Vice-President for Telecommunications Marc Darmon says the company has all the Intellectual Property (IP) rights to this product, which is obviously significant for national sovereignty issues. “We bought the source codes and we largely re-wrote them, so we have total control of the system,” says another Thales executive, dismissing concerns that foreign companies are involved in the French Watchkeeper proposal. At present, 80% of Watchkeeper components are British-made, with another 15% coming from France and 5% from the rest of the world, according to Pierrick Lerey, strategy and marketing director for Thales’ UAV and ISR business. The company has formed a French suppliers club (equipefrancewatchkeeper.com) to update Watchkeeper’s main systems, including a new-generation electro-optical payload; a new Communications and ESM payload; a new imagery chain for full HD video; interconnection with the French military C4ISR network, a new ground station and a remote video terminal. The goal, Lerey says, is to bring French content up to at least 35% for the French program, since the Watchkeeper airframe and the (new) ground stations will continue to be built in the UK. Sagem’s Optionally-Piloted Motor Glider While its competitors opted for specific, UAV-sized airframes, Sagem preferred to use a civil-certified airframe for its Patroller, which is almost as large as a MALE drone but offers the advantage of being derived from a German motor glider, the Stemme S-15. Frederic Mazzanti, Sagem Vice-President and head of its Optronics and Defense Division, notes that this means it can self-deploy using civil airspace, that it can be used for training in unsegregated airspace with a pilot on board, and that it does not need tractors or other ground equipment because it was designed to be autonomous on the ground. Patroller’s size also means it offers lots of space for fuel and sensors, and the commercial origin of its airframe means it was designed for simple, straightforward repairs with little tooling, another plus for austere operations. A soldier shows the large sensor ball of Sagem’s Patroller UAV, a large, optionally-piloted aircraft that offers much greater range and payload than its competitors (Sagem photo) Sagem’s offer comprises triplex-redundant avionics, a new fourth-generation Euroflir 41 sensor ball with a 43-cm diameter and fitted with full HD color TV, visible and thermal imaging, and laser rangefinder and designator. Several synthetic aperture radars can be fitted, depending on the customer’s preferences, and several have already been tested. Most importantly, says Mazzanti, Patroller has the capability to operate radar and EO sensors at the same time, and also to transmit their imagery at the same time. This, he notes, is a unique capability in this category, and can multiply an ISR aircraft’s effectiveness by tracking several targets with different sensors at the same time. Most Patroller subsystems and sensors are produced by Sagem itself (EO sensor ball, navigation, datalink) while the others are French-made. Sagem also owns all property rights to the airframe, so the fact that no foreign company is involved guarantees manufacturing and operational sovereignty. With its Sperwer drones, which were operated in Afghanistan by several of the nine countries that have bought it, Sagem gained precious operational experience. The French army’s 22 Sperwers attained an availability rate of 80-85% with support from Sagem. “Our availability in terms of aircraft numbers never fell short of requirements,” Mazzanti said, adding that as operators of the S-15 have logged over 1,000 flight hours per year, there is no reason for Patroller not to attain similar levels. Sagem employs over 100 people at its French plants to build Sperwer drones and its components, and the company also has assembled a cluster of SMEs to which it subcontracts some of the work. All in all, Sagem says that French content of Patroller will attain 85% by value, as only the radar and airframe would be built overseas. With a payload of 250 kg, and a mission endurance of 30 hours, Patroller is a much larger aircraft than its competitors, but Mazzanti dismisses criticism that it may be too large for its intended mission. “It is air-transportable, it fits into a standard 20-foot container, it can land with a 20-knot crosswind and it can pull 5Gs, so its size and robustness are real operational advantages.” Outsider Airbus Teams with Textron Thales and Sagem both “offered large air vehicles that are closer to MALE size, but looking at the French army requirement we thought that a smaller drone, capable of being operated from close to the front line, would be a better match,” an Airbus official said June 9. Instead of offering one of its own UAVs, the company preferred to team with Textron Systems to prepare a bid based on a tried-and-tested UAV that more closely matches the French army requirement, and which is small enough for use at brigade or division, instead of corps, level. LEGENDE: Airbus DS has offered to “Frenchify” Textron’s Shadow to develop its Artemis UAV, which is much smaller than the two SDT competitors and doesn’t need a runway, as it can be launched from a catapult. (US Army photo) Airbus has not yet formally filed a bid, and will only announce its Artemis partnership with Textron next week at the Paris Air Show. The company has so far only submitted an unsolicited proposal to DGA, and is waiting for feedback before deciding whether to invest in a formal and comprehensive proposal. Nonetheless, company officials expect a positive response, and are encouraged by the fact that a team of DGA and French army observers will fly to Yuma, Arizona during the summer for a demonstration of the Shadow M2, which will not fly at Istres. Smaller also means cheaper, and Airbus says its offer – based on Textron Unmanned Systems’ upgraded Shadow M2 – would carry much lower acquisition and operating costs, and thus allow more intensive operations for a given budget, while its small size also facilitates transport and deployment. Shadow is operated by the US Army and Marine Corps and several foreign militaries, and over 300 air vehicles have logged over 1 million flight hours, including in combat. A competitive advantage that Airbus points out is that Shadow’s long service career, and different users, are such that the latest versions benefit from a wealth of technical and operational lessons learned. For Artemis, Airbus would modify the Shadow M2 air vehicle as little as possible to limit costs, but would replace its subsystems or adapt them to French requirements. These would include Airbus’ own Lygarion datalink, a modified ground station, and French sensor packages (radar and either electro-optical or signals intelligence) that are capable of simultaneous operation. Airbus plans to purchase full rights to the Shadow airframe and ground station, and so would control the entire system, ensuring “fully autonomous operations, as well as maximum growth potential, for the French customer,” according to a briefing document. It also says that a “significant” share of production and support – about 60% -- would take place in France, supporting French industry and jobs. In reality, a large share of production would remain in the United States, so French workshare would largely be made up by training and support, in addition to some key subsystems. -ends-
12/03/2015

UAVs: France, Germany and Italy to Launch European MALE Program

PARIS --- Three European nations will sign an agreement at the Paris air show in June to jointly fund initial studies for a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said here March 11. France, Germany and Italy will follow up by awarding a study contract in December to an industry group formed by Airbus Defence and Space, Dassault Aviation and Alenia Aermacchi. The initial contract is valued at a few dozen millions of euros. Ultimately, if the program progresses as planned, the nations plan to obtain an operational reconnaissance UAV by 2025. “Our effort in the field of surveillance drones and ISR will increase with, already this year, the launch of studies of the future European drone, with Germany and Italy, that France envisions for about 2025, ,” Le Drian said here during a March 11 press conference. An Italian defense official confirmed the agreement, which has not yet been made public in Italy, however adding “we will see whether it ultimately leads to a development program.” The three companies have been calling for such a government initiative for over two years, and in May 2013 took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement calling on their governments to “launch a European MALE program.…to support the capability needs of European armed forces while optimizing the difficult budgetary situation through pooling of research and development funding.” The companies have a double goal: to maintain the know-how and expertise of their military aircraft design offices, now that they have mostly completed work on current fighters, and to recover the UAV business that is now going to their US competitors – France and Italy operate General Atomics Predator or Reaper UAVs, like the UK, the Netherlands has just decided to buy some while Spain is also weighing buying some. “Originally, [our] idea was to prevent the procurement of Reaper drones by European governments,” but this didn’t work, Dassault Aviation CEO Eric Trappier said here during a separate March 11 press conference. “We’ve been working on this project for a long time, and we think we can develop a drone to replace the Reaper, which is an interim solution. We have asked our governments to state that an operational requirement exists, and we will be able to reply to that requirement.” In parallel, France is however continuing to boost its Reaper force, which is seeing intensive use in Africa, where it is supporting French and allied troops operating in Mali. France is due to receive a third Reaper aircraft in April, and will order a follow-on batch of three additional aircraft in August, according to a planning document released by Le Drian. “We are asking for a contract from the three governments covering initial studies,” Trappier said. “Initially, it’s a question of a few dozen million euros, although it will cost more once development is launched.” The three companies set out the details of their proposal in a second joint statement issued in June 2014, in which they proposed “a Definition Phase which has been prepared by joint development teams of Airbus Defence and Space, Dassault Aviation and Alenia Aermacchi and which is backed by an industrial agreement on workshare and a cooperative agreement to start the MALE2020 program.” The broad lines of the industry proposal have been retained, although the initial operational capability has slipped to 2025. One of the trickier problems to be solved is the integration of the future MALE UAV into general air traffic, Trappier said. The inability to fly in unrestricted airspace is one of the reasons for which Germany canceled the EuroHawk program – a variant of Global Hawk fitted with a German sensor package – after spending several hundred million euros on its development. -ends-
23/02/2015

An Introduction to Autonomy in Weapon Systems

Source: Center for New American Security Ref: no reference Issued Feb 13, 2015 23 PDF pages In this working paper, 20YY Warfare Initiative Director Paul Scharre and Adjunct Senior Fellow Michael Horowitz discuss future military systems incorporating greater autonomy. The intent of the paper is to help clarify, as a prerequisite to examining legal, moral, ethical and policy issues, what an autonomous weapon is, how autonomy is already used, and what might be different about increased autonomy in the future. (PDF format) Full text
13/11/2014

UK: Challenges & Opportunities of Drone Security

Source: University of Birmingham Ref: No reference Issued Oct 22, 2014) 96 PDF pages Drone technology, both civil and military, under proper legal regulation, can continue to deliver 'significant benefits' for the UK's national security policy and economy in the coming decades. That is the conclusion of a new University of Birmingham Policy Commission Report which launches today. But the Government, and especially the Ministry of Defence (MoD), should do more to reach out to the public over what the Commission sees as the globally inevitable use of drones in armed conflict and in domestic surveillance. The Report finds that over the next 20 years, drones – or what the Commission and the RAF prefer to call Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) – will become an integral part of Britain's aerospace capability, providing both advanced surveillance and precision weapons delivery. They can support UK forces deployed overseas, as in Afghanistan, or help prevent mass atrocities, as with the British Government's decision to deploy the RAF Reaper fleet against the Islamic State (ISIS). This decision was announced after the Report was completed but is entirely consistent with its conclusions. The Report examines the distinctive and unavoidable choices for the United Kingdom over a crucial emerging technology and sets out the under-appreciated distinction between legally constrained British practice and the US Government's cross-border counter-terrorism strikes which dominate and distort UK public debate. The Commission considers various moral arguments and concludes that the current and emerging generation of RPA pose no greater ethical challenges than those already involved in decisions to use any other type of UK military asset. The Report shows clearly that the UK has operated its armed Reapers in Afghanistan according to the same exceptionally strict Rules of Engagement (no weapon should be discharged unless there is 'zero expectation of civilian casualties') that it applies to manned aircraft. Key findings There are three main obstacles affecting the UK Government's use of drones that must be overcome: gaining public understanding and acceptance of the legal and ethical soundness of the practice; allaying fears over the potential development of LAWS; and safeguarding British airspace and the privacy of British citizens if drones are to be increasingly used for domestic surveillance and security. (PDF format) Report’s download page
11/07/2014

UK, France to Launch FCAS Demo Phase

PARIS --- Four years after they first agreed to jointly develop an unmanned combat aircraft, France and Britain will finally launch the demonstration phase of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) on July 15 at the Farnborough air show, the French defense ministry announced July 10. The two countries’ defense ministers will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) authorizing a 24-month, €150 million definition phase of the FCAS program, known as FCAS-Demonstration Phase, the French defense ministry announced July 10. Contracts will be awarded to industry in the autumn, and the project will officially begin in January 2015. Participating companies are Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems for airframe and systems integration; Thales and Selex ES (UK) for sensors and electronics; and Snecma and Rolls-Royce for engine and power systems. “There is agreement on a two-year concept phase…[and]….a contract could be awarded shortly,” UK Defence Procurement Minister Philip Dunne told reporters at the Eurosatory show here June 19, adding however that “data-sharing agreements have to be competed.” Physics and aerodynamics being what they are, it is not surprising that Dassault’s Neuron demonstrator (above) and BAE System’s Taranis demonstrator (below) should look the same at first glance. The FCAS will build on knowledge gained on both programs. (photos Dassault and BAE). BAE and Dassault have been working together for about 18 months to investigate the feasibility of joint development of FCAS, based on their separate but complementary experience in developing unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrators, either alone (BAE with its Taranis) or jointly – Dassault’s Neuron project also included Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi, Sweden’s Saab as well as smaller Greek and Spanish firms. A major question mark concerns the work-sharing arrangements, as both companies are obviously keen to advance and maintain their technological know-how. This is complicated, again, by their previous work on Taranis and Neuron, which sometimes led them in different directions and which may be difficult to reconcile. “We have already shared some data, but we haven’t shown everything yet,” Benoît Dussaugey, Dassault Executive Vice-President, International, told Defense-Aerospace.com June 18, adding that full disclosure will not take place before contract award. However, having successfully managed Neuron on time and on schedule with an international team of partners, Dassault does not believe this aspect will be a show-stopper. "We are confident we will find an agreement with our partners on work-share, subject to sovereign decisions by governments," Dussaugey said. The program could be opened to additional foreign partners, he adds, on two conditions: "that everyone accepts and respects our common rules, and that the respective governments finance [their share] of the entire phase." Nonetheless, BAE’s surprise and high-profile unveiling of its Taranis UCAV demonstrator in January, which it had jealously kept under wraps until then, was clearly intended to show its credentials in the lead-up to the FCAS MoU. It is probable that, as in the previous phase, BAE will remain FCAS prime contractor, while France’s defense procurement agency, Direction Générale pour l’Armement (DGA), will act as program executive on behalf of both nations. Having successive definition and demonstration phases is considered essential for governments to define and harmonize their operational requirements, and for industry to weigh their technical feasibility and cost implications. For example, will in-flight refueling be required, and if yes using a receptacle or a boom? Where and how should radar antennas be integrated into the airframe? Will FCAS be designed to follow a pre-programmed flight path (which the French favor, as it is impervious to jamming, interception and loss of data-link), or on the contrary be remotely-piloted, as the Royal Air Force favors so as to keep a man permanently in the loop? Should the aircraft be totally silent in terms of radar, radio and IR emissions, or could it resort to jamming? Should it be single- or twin-engined? Once these basic questions are answered, processed and priced by industry, the logical follow-up would be a demonstration phase, during which the project would be further developed and prototypes or flight test aircraft built, but a decision would not be required before late 2017, which makes it very unlikely that a FCAS could fly before the end of the decade. -ends-
30/04/2014

USAF Vision & Plans for UAVs 2013-2038

Source: US Air Force Ref: no reference Issued April 04, 2014) 101 PDF pages Air Force leaders outlined what the next 25 years for remotely piloted aircraft will look like in the RPA Vector, published April 4. “The RPA Vector is the Air Force’s vision for the next 25 years for remotely-piloted aircraft,” said Col. Kenneth Callahan, the RPA capabilities division director. “It shows the current state of the program, the great advances of where we have been and the vision of where we are going.” The goal for the vector on the operational side is to continue the legacy Airmen created in the RPA field. The vector is also designed to expand upon leaps in technology and changes the Airmen have made through the early years of the program. “The Airmen have made it all about supporting the men and women on the ground,” Callahan said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them for their own advances in technology to expand the program, making it a top platform.” The document gives private corporations an outlook on the capabilities the Air Force wants to have in the future, ranging from creation of new RPAs to possibilities of automated refueling systems. “There is so much more that can be done with RPAs,” said Col. Sean Harrington, an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance command and control requirements chief. “Their roles (RPAs) within the Air Force are evolving. We have been able to modify RPAs as a plug-and-play capability while looking to expand those opportunities.” In recent years, RPAs not only supported the warfighter on the ground, they also played a vital role in humanitarian missions around the world. They provided real time imagery and video after the earthquake that led to a tsunami in Japan in 2011 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, according to Callahan. Then, most recently, during the California Rim Fire in August 2013, more than 160,000 acres of land were destroyed. Though this loss was significant, it was substantially decreased by the support of the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Reconnaissance Wing, with support from an MQ-1 Predator, a remotely piloted aircraft. With this vector, technologies may be created to improve those capabilities while supporting different humanitarian efforts, allowing the Air Force to support natural disaster events more effectively and timely. The future of the Air Force’s RPA programs will be continuously evolving, to allow the Air Force to be the leader in Air, Space, and Cyberspace. “We already combine our air, space and cyber forces to maximize these enduring contributions, but the way we execute must continually evolve as we strive to increase our asymmetric advantage,” said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff. “Our Airmen's ability to rethink the battle while incorporating new technologies will improve the varied ways our Air Force accomplishes its missions.” (PDF format) Full text
07/03/2014

Airbus Plots Return to UAV Market

MADRID --- Airbus Defense and Space is preparing to return to the UAV market, three years after it was forced out by the reluctance of the French and German governments to financially support any of the unmanned aircraft projects which it had developed. “We are revisiting our strategy on unmanned aerial vehicles with a vision to leadership,” Antonio Rodríguez Barberán, Head of Military Aircraft sales at Airbus Defence and Space, told Defense-Aerospace.com. “We are planning to be there, even if it takes some years.” This is a major shift in company policy, as Airbus Group decided in 2011 to freeze its UAV activities after having invested over 500 million euros in several programs without having convinced its domestic customers that they were worth supporting. Corporate strategy, at the time, was to sit out until European governments decided which programs, and which companies, they would support. This approach was not very successful, however, as Airbus was frozen out of two major market segments: Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE), where France preferred buying Reaper unmanned aircraft from the United States, with Germany and the Netherlands to follow shortly, and the High Altitude Lone Endurance (HALE) segment, where its EuroHawk program was abruptly cancelled by the Germen government because of cost and regulatory failings. The company was left with only smaller UAVs, a segment where competition is rife and margins small. Airbus has now changed tack because “it’s time for a proper aircraft manufacturer to get involved, to certify UAVs to civilian standards – and I mean FAR 23 and FAR 25 – so they can be used in unsegregated airspace,” Rodriguez said. At present, UAVs can only be used in segregated airspace, under military air regulations, and so are severely limited in their operational usefulness. While it has no immediate plans to resume large-scale investments in the UAV sector, Airbus DS does not see financing as a major obstacle. “We know there is a market, and if there is a market there is money,” Rodriguez said. He adds that for Airbus this is a decade-long project, which will eventually bring it a leading role: “Airbus is not here to be a subcontractor,” he says, making clear that the company is not aiming for a subordinate role in ongoing European UAV programs. While waiting for the MALE market to mature, and for the dust to settle in the combat UAV (UCAV) segment, Airbus is finalizing development of its own tactical UAV, Atlante, which is significantly smaller than the MALE and HALE segments it previously pursued. Weighing about 550 kg, Atlante has been developed in Spain, and from the outset the goal has been to fly in segregated civilian airspace, i.e. over populated areas, and it is intended to be certified for that operational environment. “The key word here is ‘certification’,” Rodriguez says, adding that, of course, “it has to offer value for money.” Atlante first flew in February 2013, Light Transport Aircraft Sector Gliding Along While its UAV strategy matures, Airbus DS continues to improve its transport aircraft product line. It recently agreed with Indonesian partner IPT Nurtanio, also known as Indonesian Aerospace, to develop a modernized version of the C-212 light twin turboprop transport, and it also is refining the performance of the C-295, its very successful medium twin. Most of the effort is on refining the airframe design, for example by adding wingtip extensions, and on increasing engine power ratings, which together add 1,000 ft. to the aircraft’s ceiling in One Engine Inoperative (OEI) conditions. The C295’s Pratt & Whitney engines are already at their power limit, so they have no more growth potential, so these refinements, together with a major upgrade of the aircraft’s avionics, will suffice to keep them competitive for years to come, says Rodriguez. The avionics upgrade will make it easier for the aircraft to operate in a civil environment. A new design may well be necessary in 10 or 15 years, he adds, but for now it is still very premature. The current line-up is quite profitable for the company, and currently accounts for average sales of about 20 aircraft per year, worth about 700-800 million euros including 100-150 million euros for related services. Over the past 10 years, Airbus has sold 157 of the 306 light/medium turboprops sold world-wide, and so has a market share of over 50%, and this should increase as additional orders will be announced this year, one of them “by Easter.” Compared to the Alenia C-27J Spartan, its direct competitor, the C-295 is simple, offers substantially lower fuel costs and “can be maintained with a hammer and a screwdriver,” Rodriguez says. Specifically, he says that maintenance costs are 35% lower, fuel consumption is 50% lower and, in terms of life-cycle costs, “it can save one million euros per plane, per year.” -ends-
03/03/2014

US Unmanned Vehicle Roadmap, FY2013-38

Source: U.S Department of Defense Ref: 14-S-0553 Issued December 26, 2013 168 PDF pages Strategy and budget realities are two aspects of the Defense Department's new Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, released Dec. 23. The report to Congress is an attempt to chart how unmanned systems fit into the defense of the nation. "The 2013 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap articulates a vision and strategy for the continued development, production, test, training, operation and sustainment of unmanned systems technology across DOD," said Dyke Weatherington, the director of the unmanned warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance office at the Pentagon. "This road map establishes a technological vision for the next 25 years and outlines the actions and technologies for DOD and industry to pursue intelligently, and affordably align with this vision," he continued. Unmanned aerial vehicles have received the most press, but unmanned underwater vehicles and ground vehicles are also providing warfighters with incredible capabilities. Although unmanned vehicles have proved their worth in combat operations throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, current technologies must be expanded and integrated into the sinews of the defense establishment, the report says. It also calls for unmanned systems to be programs of record in order to achieve "the levels of effectiveness, efficiency, affordability, commonality, interoperability, integration and other key parameters needed to meet future operational requirements." (PDF format) Full text
31/01/2014

Was Watchkeeper Grounded for 3 Months?

PARIS --- The service introduction of Watchkeeper, the tactical UAV that has been in development for the British Army since 2005, may be further delayed due to unidentified technical issues that appear to have grounded the aircraft for three months in late 2013. The Watchkeeper program apparently logged no flight activity between mid-September and mid-January, according to data provided by Thales, the program’s main contractor, which showed that the number of total flight hours and total sorties barely changed between Sept. 16, 2013 and Jan 12, 2014. As of Sept. 16, Watchkeeper had flown “almost 600 sorties, for a total of about 1,000 flight hours,” a Thales spokesperson told Defense-Aerospace.com in an e-mail follow-up to an interview at the DSEi show in London. On Jan. 20, responding to a follow-up query, the Thales spokesperson said that “Tests are progressing nominally, as planned. We have now passed 600 sorties and are nearing 1,000 flight hours.” These figures show no flight activity between mid-September and mid-January. Asked to explain this apparent discrepancy, the Thales spokesperson had not responded by our deadline, three days later. “The delivery of Watchkeeper equipment is on track and trials are continuing with over 550 hours flying having been completed,” the UK Ministry of Defence in a Jan 31 e-mail statement. Note this is about half the flight hour figure provided by Thales. “…the Release to Service process is taking longer than expected,” the MoD statement continued, adding that “The last flight was last week, so it’s incorrect to say that the assets are still grounded.” This unannounced grounding may be one reason why the French Ministry of Defense is back-pedaling on earlier promises to consider buying the Watchkeeper, after an inconclusive evaluation between April and July 2013 by the French army. The evaluation included “several dozen flight hours” from Istres, the French air force’s flight test center in south-eastern France, a French MoD spokesman said Jan. 31. The evaluation report has not been completed, and no date has been set, he added. The final communiqué of today’s Anglo-French summit meeting, for the first time since November 2010, makes no mention of the Watchkeeper, although it was mentioned in passing by French President François Hollande during the summit press conference. Thales’ figures on Watchkeeper flight activities have also been provided to other news outlets. A Jan. 16 article by FlightGlobal quotes Nick Miller, Thales UK’s business director for ISTAR and UAV systems, as saying that “Watchkeeper aircraft have now completed more than 600 flights, exceeding a combined 950 flight hours.” Aviation Week had posted an article the previous day, Jan. 15, in which it reported that “Thales U.K….is continuing flight trials and supports army training(Emphasis added—Ed.). However, it is difficult to understand how training can take place without an increase in the number of sorties and flight hours. The above article says “Watchkeeper may début in spring,” echoing a similar story published Sept. 12, 2013 in which Aviation Week said Thales UK “is hopeful that …Watchkeeper…will be certified by the end of the year.” This did not happen. This same Aviation Week Sept. 12 story said that the Watchkeeper “fleet has flown more than 1,000 hr. over 600 flights” – a higher figure than FlightGlobal reported on Jan. 16, four months later. The discrepancies in the figures provided to at least three trade publications clearly contradict company statements that Watchkeeper flight operations are “nominal” and “are continuing,” as they show no flight activity has been logged since September. The obvious conclusion is that flight activities have been curtailed, either by a technical grounding or because of administrative blockages. In either case, Watchkeeper – which is already over three years late -- has clearly hit new obstacles that will further delay its operational clearance by the UK Ministry of Defence’s new Military Aviation Authority (MAA). Watchkeeper is being developed by UAV Tactical Systems (U-TacS), a joint venture between Israel’s Elbit Systems (51% share) and Thales UK, the British unit of France’s Thales, under a contract awarded in 2005. UAV Engines Ltd, which builds Watchkeeper’s engine in the UK, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems. Originally valued at £700 million, the cost has escalated to over £850 million, and service introduction has been delayed by at least three years. The British Army is due to receive a total of 54 Watchkeeper unmanned aircraft and 15 ground stations. By late 2013, 26 aircraft and 14 ground stations had been delivered, according to published reports. -ends-