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Troubled Watchkeeper drones miss crucial UK flight safety certificate

Big drone, big money, big problems

The British Army's massively overdue Watchkeeper drone project has failed to gain a critical air safety certificate – yet the Ministry of Defence still insists it is "a satisfactory use of public resources".

Next month marks five years since the initial planned April 2013 date in which the battlefield drones were supposed to be battle-ready.

The MoD's top civil servant, Permanent Secretary Sir Stephen Lovegrove, took the very unusual step of publicly writing to Parliament's Public Accounts Committee after the Watchkeeper project failed to gain its formal Release To Service (RTS), as highlighted by Jane's Defence Weekly.

In the world of British military aviation, the RTS for an aircraft is its final confirmation that the type is safe to fly and that its limits, and those of the equipment on it, are known and have been properly tested.

"The limitations of the RTS are the definitive limits for the Air System, and allow for peacetime training, exercise, contingency, threat and war conditions," reads a detailed document (PDF) from the Military Aviation Authority.

Lovegrove's letter (PDF, 3 pages) very briefly sets out the reasons for the "delay in meeting the Watchkeeper programme's 'Full Operating Capability 1' 90 per cent milestone in November 2017."

The Watchkeeper technical flying programme was delayed between 24 March and 26 June 2017 due to investigations into the cause of an incident on 24 March 2017 and the subsequent development of relevant evidence to allow the resumption of flying under a Military Flight Test Permit. Consequently, and as acknowledged by the IAC in July and November 2017, the risk of not meeting the Full Operating Capability 1 milestone in November 2017 has now been realised.

What that actually means is 47 Regiment Royal Artillery, the Army unit which flies the Watchkeepers, crashed two of them in February and March last year into the sea off the coast of Wales. The MoD belatedly let the news slip out six months later during a talk by an admiral at a defence trade show.

Watchkeeper was initially billed as an "affordable" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for battlefield surveillance duties, back in the early 2000s, as noted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which went on to say: "Instead of all 54 being ready by April 2013 as first planned, software glitches, stricter aerospace regulations and Army staff shortages have meant the latest date for 'full operational capability' is now 2017 at the earliest – a delay of at least four years."

The £1.2bn Watchkeeper programme was given an "amber" rating by the UK government's Infrastructure and Projects Authority, a spending watchdog, "due to concerns over training and the achievement of a Release to Service". Fifty-four of the unmanned aerial vehicles were ordered by the MoD, four of which have been destroyed in crashes over the years: two last year, one in November 2014 thanks to crew disabling anti-crash protections, and one a year later, which was attributed by military investigators to poor software design. While 45 of the aircraft are currently on strength, previous MoD responses to The Register's questions dried up when we asked what had happened to the other five.

"If FOC is achieved in 2017, it will be 17 years after the initial concept contracts were awarded," noted the authoritative Think Defence website's exhaustive history of the Watchkeeper project.

The MoD has been asked to comment on the Lovegrove letter and we will update this article if we hear back from them.

While the Watchkeeper project is riddled with cost overruns and delays, it did notch up the first beyond visual-line-of-sight drone flight in segregated airspace and carried out a test flight in unsegregated airspace - notable firsts for UK skies.

In spite of the 13 years over which the Watchkeeper programme has been dragging on, just 146 of the entire fleet's 2,859 flying hours logged by November last year had been flown while on actual military operations. ®

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