Thales has successfully flown its Watchkeeper unmanned aircraft system (UAS) alongside manned aircraft in controlled civil airspace for the first time in the UK.
During the flight test, which forms part of Project Claire, Watchkeeper flew from West Wales Airport into civil controlled airspace for an hour, where it was successfully managed by UK air navigation services provider NATS.
Project Claire is a joint initiative between Thales, NATS, the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory NLR, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and was funded by the SESAR Joint Undertaking.
Thales Defence Mission Systems executive vice-president Pierre Eric Pommellet said: "Thales is providing the first and only, completely unmanned aircraft system that is certified to fly through non-segregated airspace.
"Watchkeeper is a uniquely capable system, which is leading the way in the evolution and regulation of unmanned aircraft systems."
The flight, along with the delivery of Watchkeeper into service, demonstrates how Watchkeeper X, based on the British Watchkeeper programme, provides a strong solution to meet the requirements of both France’s UAS programme and Poland’s Gryf Tactical UAS programme.
Watchkeeper, which is based on the Elbit Systems Hermes 450 UAV, is a dual-sensor, all-weather system designed to provide intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance support.
Used by the British Army Royal Artillery, the drone offers greater situational awareness to ground forces, and uses advanced cameras and radar capabilities, which will reduce the risk of threats.
In March 2014, Watchkeeper became the first UAS of its type to be awarded a release to service or equivalent in Europe, which allows for flights in non-segregated airspace.
The flight is expected to help develop the necessary operational and regulatory conditions to support a growing requirement for UAS to be used in commercial, search and rescue, homeland security tasks, critical infrastructure and border protection.
Image: Watchkeeper unmanned aircraft system during its first flight in the UK. Photo: courtesy of Peter Russell LBIPP.