The UK Army's Watchkeeper unmanned aircraft system (UAS) has successfully completed its first operational flights from Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.
Manufactured by Thales UK, it provides force protection for UK soldiers, as they prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the year.
UK defence secretary Michael Fallon said: "Watchkeeper is the first unmanned air system developed and built in the UK to become operational and will be a significant surveillance and reconnaissance capability for the army for years to come."
UK defence staff chief general Sir Nicholas Houghton said: "The enhanced real-time situational awareness [that] Watchkeeper provides means that our local understanding is greater, our tactical decisions better informed, and that, ultimately, personnel on the ground are safer."
Thales UK chief executive officer Victor Chavez said: "The system embodies a number of major technological innovations, including ultra-high resolution, multi-modal radar and automatic take-off and landing to deliver an outstandingly effective military capability for the British Army."
A total of 54 Watchkeeper systems have been manufactured by Thales for use by the British Army Royal Artillery, under an £800m contract awarded by the UK Ministry of Defence in July 2005.
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.
In addition to gathering crucial information from the battlefield, the drone is also expected to offer greater situational awareness to ground forces. It uses advanced cameras and radar capabilities, which will eventually reduce the risk of threats.
Following the handover of Camp Bastion, the drone will return to Wiltshire, UK, where Royal Artillery personnel will continue to train with the system in restricted airspace over Salisbury Plain.
Image: A Watchkeeper UAS prepares for take-off at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. Photo: courtesy of corporal Mark Larner, Crown copyright.