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Army grounds £1bn drone fleet after two crash

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 13/09/2017 By Ben Farmer, Defence Correspondent

Army grounds £1bn drone fleet after two crash © Catalyst Army grounds £1bn drone fleet after two crash Two multi-million pound British Army reconnaissance drones crashed into the sea earlier this year leading commanders to temporarily ground the fleet, the Ministry of Defence has disclosed.

The Watchkeeper remote-control aircraft were both lost in the Irish Sea after taking off from West Wales Airport at Aberporth.

Remains of the aircraft have not been recovered and investigations into why they crashed have yet to be completed, but the MoD said flying had since resumed. The incidents were the latest in a series of accidents and delays which have hit the Army's reconnaissance drone programme.

Rear Admiral Jon Pentreath revealed the grounding during a presentation at the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair in East London.

"Watchkeeper is back in the air after we briefly paused flying earlier year," he said.

A defence source said flying was now placed under stricter weather restrictions, adding: "The service inquiries have yet concluded so we can't say officially what caused the crashes, but we know enough to allow us to lift the grounding order."

The Ministry of Defence ordered 54 Watchkeepers in 2005 in an £847m deal to provide surveillance and reconnaissance for troops. The 35ft wingspan aircraft made by Thales can beam back high definition images, day or night, as they fly up to 16,000ft above the battlefield.

The Army says it is “built to operate in extreme and challenging environments” and “carries the very latest optical and radar systems”.

But technical and safety delays and a lack of trained personnel have meant that apart from a brief stint in Afghanistan, the aircraft has still not fully entered service.

When the aircraft were first ordered, the then Defence Secretary said they would be in service by 2010.

The July 2017 report of the UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority reported that the Watchkeeper project had cost £1.1 billion up to then.

British Army sources said that despite the crashes, commanders are still confident they can bring the aircraft, operated by 47 Regiment, into service later this year, or early in 2018.

“The Watchkeeper story has become a bit of a saga but that is what we are aiming for,” said a senior Army source.

An accident inquiry into a separate 2014 crash found that another Watchkeeper was written off when it nosedived into a runway because of a computer glitch.

The aircraft plunged into a Welsh runway when its software wrongly detected it had already landed, an official inquiry found.

An MOD spokesman said: “We paused Watchkeeper flying for a short period whilst conducting initial investigations, but resumed flight trials in early July. Service inquiries into the specific incidents are ongoing as we look to learn all we can from the events.”

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