The British Army's Watchkeeper 450 unmanned air vehicle has made its first flight in UK airspace, completing a 20min sortie from the ParcAberporth centre in west Wales on 14 April.
"The success of this first flight is the first milestone in a long-term programme to demonstrate that the Watchkeeper system meets the robust safety and airworthiness criteria required to fly UAVs initially on ranges and [in] segregated airspace in the UK," says Thales UK.
Chief executive Alex Dorrian says: "2010 is an important year for the programme, as it will also see the opening of the Watchkeeper training facility based in Larkhill [on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire], and the continuation of the technical field trials at ParcAberporth."
Previous flight test activities with the type have been performed in Israel.
Thales UK is prime contractor for the Watchkeeper tactical UAV programme, with WK450 air vehicles and other infrastructure being produced in Leicester by its U-TacS joint company with Israel's Elbit Systems.
Derived from the Hermes 450 airframe but with an increased maximum take-off weight, the WK450 will offer a maximum mission endurance of over 16h, according to Thales. The UAV has a dual-payload configuration, including an electro-optical/infrared sensor and a synthetic aperture radar.
The British Army currently uses an interim TUAV service in Afghanistan with Hermes 450s leased from Thales under an urgent operational requirement deal. Its new Watchkeeper system will enter use later this year, and should be deployed to Afghanistan "as soon as possible", the service says.