AIRSHOW-Thales' British drone set for exports by 2015 - UK CEO

LONDON, July 16 Wed Jul 16, 2014 1:02pm EDT

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LONDON, July 16 (Reuters) - The UK business of Thales expects to start receiving overseas orders worth hundreds of millions of pounds for its Watchkeeper drone from next year, buoying Britain's plan to grow its defence exports.

Watchkeeper, an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), was developed by the UK division of Thales, Europe's largest defence electronics company, for Britain's Ministry of Defence as part of an 800 million pound ($1.4 billion) contract signed ten years ago.

"We will be taking Watchkeeper to the export market. There's a number of very strong expressions of interest in Watchkeeper,"

Victor Chavez, the chief executive of Thales Group's UK business told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

France remains very interested in the project, Chavez said, adding that other European nations and members of NATO would be other likely buyers.

"I think we'll be seeing the first export orders in 2015. They would run to hundreds of millions of pounds for each order," he added.

The British government laid out plans on Monday to try to grow defence industry exports. The sector employs more than 160,000 people and generated 9.8 billion pounds in exports in 2013.

The unarmed drone, which was cleared to start military flight training with the British Army in March and is the first UAS permitted to fly in the country's airspace, and will be used for surveillance and intelligence purposes.

"We have a unique proposition in terms of the only tactical UAS certified to European civil aircraft standards certified to fly in this sort of airspace," Chavez said.

($1 = 0.5838 British Pounds) (Editing by Mark Potter)

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