UK defence firm Thales recently flew its Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in civil airspace for the first time having been granted clearance from the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The drone took off from West Wales Airport on a three-and-a-half-hour flight of which around one hour was through civilian airspace with the craft being managed by air traffic controllers on the ground. This is the first time a UAV has been flown in non-segregated airspace along with commercial aircraft in the UK.
The test run has been hailed as a success with operators saying it brings the UK one step closer to using unmanned aircraft for various applications including border security and search and rescue roles. Thales believes this first foray into civilian airspace will lay the foundations for developing the required operational and regulatory conditions to allow widespread use of UAVs in UK air space.
The flight was good news for the Watchkeeper program which has come under criticism in recent years for being well behind schedule.The drone is based on the Elbit Hermes 450 UAV and in March of last year the Ministry of Defence finally granted Watchkeeper a Release of Service enabling the British Army to commence flight training with the aircraft. However the program has been further delayed by reports that there aren’t enough operators being trained to keep the drone at an operational level although the Army has said it is addressing this problem.