A world where unmanned aircraft soar alongside their manned counterparts mightn't be all that far away, with UK defence firm Thales recently flying its Watchkeeper drone in civil airspace for the first time. The test run has been labeled a success, with operators saying it brings the UK one step closer to using unmanned aircraft for various applications, including security missions and border patrol.
Thales' Watchkeeper drone first took to the air in 2009 and is being developed for the British Army to offer aerial surveillance, reconnaissance and support for troops on the ground. It won't carry people, but it does feature dual payload capabilities and is able to remain in the air for more than 16 hours at a time.
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On this occasion, Watchkeeper took off from West Wales Airport on a three-and-a-half-hour flight. Around one hour of this was through civilian airspace as the craft was managed by air traffic controllers on the ground, marking the first time an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has been flown in non-segregated airspace along with commercial aircraft in the UK.
"The successful flight is the result of months of systematic planning to ensure Watchkeeper was safely controlled by UK Air Traffic Control agencies at all times," said Pete Grinsted, head of Unmanned Air Systems at UK Ministry of Defence. "This is also an exciting step on the path to safely integrating military and civilian unmanned air systems into civilian airspace over the coming years."
The all-weather aircraft is based on the Elbit Hermes 450 UAV and features a wingspan of 35 ft (10.6 m) and a synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator (SAR/GMTI). In March of last year, the UK Ministry of Defence granted Watchkeeper a Release of Service, enabling the British Army to commence flight training with the aircraft.
Thales says this first foray into civilian airspace will assist in the development of the required operational and regulatory conditions to allow widespread use of unmanned aircraft. Further to military applications, it imagines they could come to be used for commercial purposes and in search and rescue efforts.
You can see the Watchkeeper take to skies in the video below.