Thales U.K. says it is hopeful that its Watchkeeper UAV system will be certified by the end of the year.

The process of certification by the U.K. Military Aviation Authority has slowed the UAV’s entry into service with the British army. The aircraft should have been operational some three years ago, but the complexity of certifying what is the first UAV to be certified by the MAA has affected its introduction into service.

Nonetheless, officials at Thales say the certification process could open other opportunities for the system.

Nick Miller, business director for Istar and UAV Systems at Thales U.K. told Aviation Week at the Defense Services Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition on Sept. 12, that the MAA clearance would give the aircraft an advantage over other systems and could put it only a step away from civil certification by EASA.

“We are the pipe-cleaner for this process … and are fully supportive of the MAA process,” Miller said, “and having it will ultimately give us many advantages over other platforms.”

“It will be a game changer. The army will be able to put this into an A400M, deploy and fly it anywhere in the world and if we are given a bit of airspace to work, we will be able to operate homeland security missions. But the certification process is the key,” he added.

Thales U.K. has delivered more than 7,000 pages of evidence for the certification process and is continuing to build the systems ready for use by the British army’s Royal Artillery units.

The company now has delivered 28 Watchkeeper platforms — with two more to be delivered shortly — out of a total of 54 being purchased. Nine ground control stations out of 15 also have been delivered and the fleet has flown more than 1,000 hr. over 600 flights.

Currently all flight testing is being carried out at the UAV test range in Aberporth, West Wales. Once the MAA has certified the aircraft and signed off its Release to Service (RTS), Watchkeeper will be able to begin flights over the Salisbury Plain supporting the Royal Artillery from the Qinetiq-operated Boscombe Down airfield, where the UAV will mix with manned traffic.

Personnel have been training on the system since May 2011, and although Watchkeeper does not have its RTS, Army pilots have been able to train through a Military Flight Test Permit (MFTP) in conjunction with Thales test pilots.

It is unclear whether certification will mean the Watchkeeper system is immediately deployed to Afghanistan. Currently the British army is using the Hermes 450 UAV for intelligence gathering operations from Camp Bastion in Helmand Province through the Lydian program, acquired as an urgent operational requirement. The Lydian system is providing some 80% of the surveillance requested by U.K. ground forces in that theater.

The creation of the MAA following the Haddon-Cave review of aviation safety in the U.K. military has had an effect on several major U.K. defense ministry programs as safety cases for new aircraft types are reviewed. The creation of the MAA came after the Watchkeeper contract was signed back in 2005.

The delays have not harmed potential export deals, however. The French army has a keen interest in the program and is considering a purchase of 20-30 systems. French army personnel have trained on Watchkeeper and the platform flew a series of demonstration flights at Istres air base near Marseille earlier this year.