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Yet more British military drones crash, this time into the Irish Sea

Not looking good for the Thales Watchkeeper fleet

By Gareth Corfield, 14 Sep 2017

Another two Watchkeeper drones crashed in the last year, taking the number of Watchkeepers destroyed in crashes up to four.

The two semi-autonomous aircraft, which mainly operate from West Wales Airport at Aberporth, reportedly crashed at some point during the last year, resulting in the 52-strong Watchkeeper fleet being grounded.

The news was revealed at the Defence and Security Exhibition International (DSEI) trade show in London’s Docklands in a talk given by Rear Admiral Jon Pentreath, chief of Joint Helicopter Command at the Ministry of Defence.

The Thales-built Watchkeeper “is back in the air again”, the admiral told the audience, composed largely of military personnel, defence industry representatives – and a journalist from aerospace magazine Flight Global.

The aircraft were grounded until July this year, though the ministry has not yet confessed how long the drone fleet was grounded for. Generally the MoD grounds an entire fleet of aircraft whenever an initially unexplained accident occurs that might be down to some kind of design or equipment flaw.

We asked the Ministry of Defence for more information: specifically, the tail numbers of the aircraft involved and the dates of the crashes, but it declined comment. The BBC reported that both aircraft were “lost in the Irish Sea earlier this year”.

Both the Telegraph and Flight Global reported that formal Service Inquiries are active into the causes of the crashes. Such inquiries are normally published once complete.

Last year the reports of two inquiries into Watchkeeper crashes were published. The first, relating to aircraft serial number WK031, revealed that the drone crashed into a runway after its operators disabled anti-crash systems. The second revealed deeper problems with the software controlling the drone in flight, which had been written so the drone was capable of believing it had landed safely while it was still 300 feet up in the air.

At the time, Air Marshal Dick Garwood, then head of the Defence Safety Authority, declared that Thales’ key claim that the Watchkeepers were all-weather aircraft “is not true and has likely led to operators having expectations beyond its true capabilities.” ®

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