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French defence and electronics group Thales said Thursday it had signed a 700-million-pound (one-billion-euro, 1.23-billion-dollar) contract with the British defence ministry for pilotless surveillance aircraft, or drones.
It said the sale covered the provision of equipment, necessary installations and training, with the drones -- dubbed Watchkeepers -- reaching operational capacity in 2010.
Watchkeeper will provide the UK's armed forces with a globally deployable Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability to deliver Image Intelligence (IMINT), as a core element of the MoD's Network-Enabled Capability strategy.
Thales is currently leading a top-tier team of preferred companies and will establish a joint company in England with Elbit Systems to manufacture sub-systems for both Watchkeeper and the rapidly growing worldwide UAV market, estimated to be worth around $3 billion over the next ten years.
"Watchkeeper is the key to battlefield surveillance of the future," said Dr Reid. "The new UAVs will be able to stay in the air for much longer than conventional aircraft, and will provide all-weather coverage by day and by night." Dr Reid went on to state that UAVs "are a key part of the future vision for our armed forces", providing high-quality battlefield imagery that can be accessed quickly by commanders.