Eyes in the sky: saving lives with air surveillance
What do you do if you urgently need game-changing capabilities but there’s not enough time to acquire them? That was the challenge faced by the British army in Afghanistan. With lives at stake, they turned to long-standing supplier, Thales, for help with getting ‘eyes in the sky’.
The army uses Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) for what it refers to as ‘ISR’ - Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. They’ve been around in various forms for many years, but today’s UAVs are packed with sophisticated radar, night vision, satellite comms and high-resolution video, and can loiter over the subject of interest for hours, undetected.
The information that UAVs can capture is invaluable. It’s used not just on the battlefield, but for civilian applications such as search and rescue, and for combatting smuggling, piracy and poaching.
Even for a small fleet however, building infrastructure, developing training and managing the logistics and maintenance is not only expensive but prohibitively time consuming.
It was this lack of time that prompted the British Army to publish an Urgent Operational Requirement for supporting ground forces in Iraq and, later, in Afghanistan – a requirement to which Thales immediately responded.
Simply saving lives
The answer, Project Lydian, was both novel and beguilingly simple. Thales offered to supply and support unmanned air vehicles for a fixed hourly rate, creating an immediate and affordable air surveillance capability.
For the Army, it was a winning formula. There was nothing to buy and nothing to maintain. It gained 24/7 ISR coverage of whatever targets it chose, with much of the risk passed to Thales. The project was so successful that it eventually clocked up more than 100,000 flying hours.
ISR as a Service
One of the benefits of ISR as a Service is that it can incorporate the technology of the customer’s choice. That could be existing equipment, or perhaps specialist technology that Thales can help to procure. A Service also substantially reduces capital expenditure and removes the need for the customer to fund updates.
It can also be deployed rapidly, even if the customer has little or no infrastructure in place; the first UAV can be in the air and acquiring data within a few weeks. A fully managed service with expert mission support can be up and running in around six months.
Thales has taken the lessons it learned from Project Lydian and developed Watchkeeper, a new aircraft with superior multi- sensor technology. Watchkeeper takes off and lands automatically, is fully autonomous and can fly at 16,000 feet, gathering intelligence for 16+ hours at a time.
The British Army has ordered dozens of Watchkeeper aircraft and Thales is providing the requisite maintenance, training and technical support. In an unconnected operation, Thales is using a larger platform, with an even greater range, to provide a fully managed ISR Service for a large multi-national operation in Africa.
Clearly, providing support in war zones is not without danger. These bases do get attacked. But the people that we depend on to keep us all safe know that they can rely on Thales for putting eyes in the sky, whatever it takes.