British army officials say confidence in the Thales Watchkeeper unmanned aerial system (UAS) is rising and it could be ready to enter service in the spring.

Currently running three years behind schedule, the certification and introduction into service of the Watchkeeper has been slowed due to concerns raised by the U.K.’s newly established safety body, the Military Aviation Authority (MAA). Watchkeeper is the first UAS to be examined by the agency.

“The bar has been set very high in terms of safety,” said Lt. Col. Craig Palmer, the officer leading the army’s UAS programs, speaking at a UAS event at RAF Waddington on Jan. 15.

“Confidence is growing and we are looking to achieve an interim release to service in the next quarter,” Palmer said. “All the indicators show we are heading in the right direction.”

Palmer said critical lessons for the program had been learned from operations in Afghanistan and quickly implemented — most notably in the aftermath of the loss of a leased Hermes 450 UAS, ZK515, one of several being flown in Afghanistan in support of British intelligence gathering operations.

Following the accident in October 2011, a board of inquiry recommended significant improvements in training UAS pilots and a need to enhance their awareness of complex airspace such as that found at Camp Bastion, where the Hermes 450s are operated.

Officials say the accident’s timing, although unfortunate, was “helpful” and has resulted in a Watchkeeper system that is “freer of bugs” than it might have been had the Hermes 450 not crashed. Since the accident, the Hermes 450 fleet has flown 30,000 hr. without incident, and the Royal Artillery, which will operate the Watchkeeper fleet, now has highly experienced personnel with a multitude of deployments under their belts, ready to transfer onto the platform.

In October the Watchkeeper was awarded a Statement of Type Design Assurance (STDA) by the MAA that states it has met “an acceptable level for design safety and integrity.” The next step is for the aircraft to be given an interim release to service, which will allow army crews to begin training by flying sorties in segregated airspace around the Salisbury Plain, operating from Boscombe Down test airfield in Wiltshire. Palmer says two instructor crews could be deployed to Afghanistan to set up a single Watchkeeper task line if required, but it seems increasingly likely that the army will concentrate on preparing the system for contingency operations, with an interim contingency capability ready for operation by late 2015.

“There are many areas we still need to test,” Palmer said. “The system is designed to be transported in an ISO container, but we have not yet underslung that under a Chinook or put it into a C-17. All these things need to be tested.

“We also need to prepare for semi-prepared operations. We will not always have the comfort of a major base to operate from, so we [need] to practice operations under canvas and camouflage netting.”

Thales U.K., the program’s prime contractor, is continuing flight trials and supports army training through a Military Flight Test Permit in conjunction with Thales test pilots at the UAV test range in Aberporth, West Wales. Thales has so far produced 26 Watchkeeper air vehicles out of 54 being purchased, and 14 ground control stations.

Program costs have grown significantly from the initial £700 million ($1.1 billion) to around £831 million, and the program has appeared on a defense ministry watch list of projects considered to be in danger of being unachievable or that need to be “re-scoped.” But Thales officials say the Watchkeeper work has “pipe cleaned” the MAA’s process for introducing unmanned systems and paved the way for others to follow in its footsteps.