The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has awarded a release to service (RTS) to Thales-built Watchkeeper unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to start military flight training with the British Army.
Awarded after MoD's rigorous safety and airworthiness reviews to ensure the system can be operated safely by the army, RTS enables the Royal Artillery pilots to begin live-flying the drone's from Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, UK.
The 1st Artillery Brigade pilots will be trained to fly Watchkeeper in a segregated airspace between 8,000 and 16,000ft over the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA), under supervision of military air traffic controllers, over the next few weeks.
The UAS has previously only been trialled by Thales operators in approved test airspace near Parc Aberporth, west Wales.
UK Defence Equipment, Support and Technology Minister Philip Dunne said the RTS represents a major milestone in this important programme.
"Watchkeeper will provide real-time information for troops conducting operations on the ground, allowing them to understand better and thereby overcome threats they may face," Dunne added.
Thales UK CEO Victor Chavez said: "Much painstaking work has been required by all parties to deliver the comprehensive and rigorous certification, but our collective achievement is a great one: the first tactical UAS allowed to fly in UK airspace."
UK Army lieutenant colonel Craig Palmer added: "The detailed reviews and testing of the whole system have provided significant evidence that the system is maturing rapidly; sufficiently enough to support an RTS recommendation."
A total of 54 Watchkeeper UAS have been manufactured by Thales with support from its supply chain, under an £800m contract awarded in July 2005, to provide an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) support to the UK armed forces operations.
Based on the Elbit Systems Hermes 450 UAV, the next-generation platform is claimed to be the only tactical UAV to address European airworthiness criteria, having completed more than 300 flights in the UK to date as part of its trials programme.
Image: The UK Army's Watchkeeper UAS in-flight over the UK during testing. Photo: courtesy of Richard Seymour, Thales UK.