Cleared for take off at Boscombe Down

PUBLISHED: 13:45 22 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:25 20 February 2013

Predator, the US Army’s UAV system

Predator, the US Army’s UAV system

Boscombe Down is set to become the site of Britain's first ever Unmanned Air Systems Capability Development centre. Jess Bate explains the history of these amazing craft

Clearedfor take off

Boscombe Down is set to become the site of Britains first ever Unmanned Air Systems Capability Development centre. Jess Bate explains the history of these amazing craft

As a newly commissioned Gunner officer in 1998, my first posting to a regiment learning to operate Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) was seen as slightly second best. While I cannot deny it was one of the least exciting pieces of equipment to work with in the Royal Artillerys considerable arsenal, I arrived with an open mind.
Fast forward 14 years and I now know we were on the cutting edge of UAV development. We were trialling the British Armys primary tool of battlefield surveillance and target acquisition, called at the time Phoenix. It was an exciting piece of history to be a part of; we flew them in the UK, in Kosovo, in Egypt and America. As our working practices improved and technology was honed and tweaked, Phoenix emerged as a vital tool on the modern battlefield, without which many commanders would refuse to deploy. It provided a real-time overhead pair of eyes, the likes of which we had never had the luxury of before.
Drones were first deployed in 1849, when an unmanned balloon loaded with bombs was launched from Austria to attack Venice. The first pilotless aircraft were built shortly after the First World War and now the most recent British Army UAV in use in Afghanistan is Hermes 450. Today, anyone can buy a small drone for just under 185 from the internet. For this you gain the ability to conduct aerial photography, reconnaissance, surveillance, and you have a research platform.
War-fighting not withstanding, these flying eyes have multiple uses: by Customs, following people smuggling illegal items into a country; by the police for catching criminals in the act and monitoring crowd situations; by ranch farmers or safari businesses to oversee their animals across the huge areas of land they work. The US Army has employed their UAV system, Predator, outside the war zone as well. Its excellent real-time thermal-imaging camera located survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2006.
Previously referred to as drones or Remote Pilotless Vehicles (RPVs), one of the reasons UAVs appeal is because there is little, if any, risk of loss of life to the operator. There is no doubt that they significantly contribute to the increasingly clinical nature of war-fighting. However, they are incredibly responsive, beam live footage back to the controller and ensure commanders have an immediate picture of the battlefield, enabling them to make better decisions. Depending on which type is deployed, some need a runway for take off, some dont. Some can carry missiles, others only cameras; their uses, though, are limitless!

Boscombe Down will host the think tank for all things to do with these amazing flying machines

So it is with interest that I learn of a new Unmanned Air Systems Capability Development Centre (UASCDC) being established at Boscombe Down by April 2013. The MOD, in conjunction with technical research company Qinetiq, aims to rapidly develop the next generation of UAVs here in Wiltshire. Qinetiqs Account Director for this joint venture, Fiona Lewinton, said: We are implementing a new approach so that we can combine our peoples in-depth understanding of air vehicle engineering, release-to-service, integration of command and control and communications systems, and above all safety, with that of the full range of suppliers. This combined approach will allow new Unmanned Air Systems capabilities to be brought to life more efficiently and effectively than before.
The first of its kind in the UK, the centre will aim to communicate best practice to support maximum re-use of data and lessons learnt, and will coordinate the provision of access to air ranges and airspace to help the MOD buy once and use many times. It will work in close conjunction with 32 Regiment Royal Artillery, based in Larkhill, one of two regiments entirely devoted to the provision of UAS targeting and reconnaissance for the British Army. Boscombe Down will host the think tank for all things to do with these amazing flying machines; and coincidently, the Watchkeeper programme will re-locate to be sited at Boscombes two runways, once all accreditation and safety processes have been rigorously completed by the MOD.
Watchkeeper is a core equipment programme that will replace Hermes 450 in Afghanistan and will also provide an enduring UAS capability for the British Army wherever they deploy. Costing more than 1bn, the Watchkeeper programme has a purpose-built training centre in Larkhill and will enable training on Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) to be undertaken. Although Watchkeeper has a range of 150km, it will be restricted to segregated airspace above SPTA and will only be flown under strictly controlled conditions.
The UASCDC aims to accelerate the process of designing, testing and producing future UAVs, so keep an eye out for them next time you are looking skywards!

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