A version of this article appears in the May 12 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

With its long-awaited flight clearances in place, British Army pilots are now able to support troop training with the Thales Watchkeeper unmanned aerial system (UAS).

It has been a long time coming. Initially due for entry into service three years ago, Watchkeeper has not had an easy introduction, facing extra scrutiny as the first UAS to be certified by the U.K.’s new military air safety body, the Military Aviation Authority (MAA). Meanwhile, the loss of one of its precursors in Afghanistan, a leased-in Hermes 450, has resulted in a radical change in the configuration of the army’s UAS operations, to those more closely matching that of a typical flying squadron in the Army Air Corps or the Royal Air Force.

In March, the system was given its interim release to service (RTS) documents, allowing army crews from the Royal Artillery to begin operations under full army control from the Boscombe Down test airfield in Wiltshire. Until then, army pilots had only been able to fly through the use of a Military Flight Test Permit (MFTP) in conjunction with Thales test pilots when flying the aircraft from the Aberporth test center in West Wales. From Boscombe Down, the pilots are able to fly sorties in support of troops training within the vast Salisbury Plain Training Area. Only a handful of flights have taken place each week, but the operational tempo is increasing, according to Col. Mark Thornhill, commander of the British Army’s 1st Artillery Brigade.

“The flights are currently overhead [of] the Salisbury Plain, providing imagery, but we can fly anywhere within the Salisbury Plain from Warminster in the west across to Tidworth in the east,” said Thornhill, speaking at an army event at the Trenchard Lines garrison in April.

Once all 54 platforms and 14 ground stations are in service, they will be pooled between two front-line active-duty units, the 32 and 47 Regiments of  Royal Artillery, each with five flights using five systems each.

Currently, there are no plans for Watchkeeper to be flown by reservist units, because of the training requirements.

All operations are flown from the ground control stations located at Boscombe Down, under radar control provided from that airfield, with missions flown at between 8,000 and 16,000 ft. The Watchkeeper platforms take off and land from a taxiway parallel to the main runway. Prior to takeoff and landing, manned fixed-and rotary-wing movements are halted until the UAS is airborne and away from the airfield. The taxiway is used because of the installation of the arrestor used to bring the Watchkeeper to a halt on landing.

Future Watchkeeper operations will be extended into segregated airspace to the south of the Salisbury Plain, where activities will require Notices to Airman. Flying in these areas will give the army pilots the ability to train using the Watchkeeper’s synthetic aperture radar on targets requiring the aircraft to be at a stand-off distance.

If other aircraft do fly into the segregated airspace, the Watchkeeper will be steered away under radar control from any potential conflict.

The aircraft’s current release to service documentation is an interim qualification, with full capabilities due to be signed off in 2016.

“The current RTS is representative of the current build standard,” explained Thornhill. “It’s very good, and allows us to use virtually all the capabilities; the only things we lack are the ability to operate from rough surfaces and the anti-icing system.”

The current RTS could potentially allow the system to deploy to Afghanistan, but Thornhill said the priority is to establish the Watchkeeper’s capabilities and build training and experience on the system for future deployments. An interim training capability is planned for 2015, although some consideration is already being given to deploying the system to other army training areas including the British Army training unit Suffield (Batus) in Canada.

For the MAA, certifying the system has been a challenge. In its annual report, published in early April, the regulator said it had difficulty certifying the system’s software because of what it called “difficulty in demonstrating compliance with recognized and approved design standards.” The structure inside flying units has also changed, as a result of the accident inquiry into the loss of a Hermes 450 ZK515 in October 2011. Part of this has seen the army’s operating responsibilities, particularly in terms of aviation safety, align with those of senior officials within the U.K. Joint Helicopter Command.

The French army maintains a keen interest in the program, and is considering a purchase of 20-30 systems. Several French personnel are training on the system alongside their British counterparts at Larkhill, Wiltshire.