The $1.6 billion Watchkeeper program for the British Army has made Thales the biggest UAV company in Europe, and in its UAV systems laboratory, also known as the Soul battlelab near Bordeaux, the company’s engineers are exploring the requirements for future ground control stations and mission systems.
Watchkeeper, on show here outside the Thales pavilion, is due to start operations in Afghanistan at the end of this year, said Jean-François Henrio, vice president, airborne mission systems, in the Soul lab earlier this month, and training is under way at Larkhill in the UK. But the task of UAVs is to provide information with varying degrees of detail to specific levels of command, and the French and other armies do not have the same command structure. So the lab is used to develop mission concepts and simulate their execution.
“We can generate different flight plans, different types of threat,” he said. “And to convince the French army that Watchkeeper would be useful for them, we need to simulate connections to their real command and control tools.” Thales is also looking at sensor options and man-machine interface concepts, such as the application of Google Earth technology for the Anglo-French Telemos medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV, expected to enter service toward the end of the decade. “We take the best technology from the Web and make sure it can provide benefits to users,” he commented.
Thales has been “pushed to limit in terms of certification and airworthiness,” Henrio said, since Watchkeeper is the first UAV to be certified to civil aviation standards, a prerequisite to operating over European territory with inhabited areas.
“One thing blocking acquisition by France or Spain is the question of what to do with the assets when they come back from Afghanistan. Can you use them for internal surveillance? Often the answer is no, because unlike the southern border of the U.S. where nobody lives and you can get a permit to fly Predator drones, in Europe that is not possible.”
Watchkeeper has come through a “formidable level of testing to pass certification,” he said, and the safety case is currently undergoing final validation by the UK Ministry of Defence for service introduction in the second half of this year.
Thales is also turning its attention to rotary-wing UAVs for naval applications. The French navy wants to save its limited fleet of helicopters for missions, such as anti-submarine warfare and combating piracy, Henrio explained. So together with the navy and armaments agency DGA the company is developing the necessary technologies.
The first prerequisite is the ability to land a one-ton UAV on the deck of a French frigate in harsh sea states, he said. “If we can’t, the system is of no use.” Thales has already demonstrated the ability of the Magic automatic takeoff and landing system it developed for Watchkeeper. In the U.S., Boeing’s Unmanned Little Bird modification of the MD 530F helicopter was landed on a moving truck standing in for a frigate in sea state zero. The next step is to do tests on a three-axis table, then waterborne tests up to sea state five.
Henrio said he is aware of Anglo-French government discussions that might result in a joint requirement for a rotary-wing UAV. “It would make sense to use the expertise that Thales has developed on both sides of the English Channel,” he said.