Photos of Watchkeeper UAV released

Successful maiden flight for new U.K. UAV.

Thales UK

Thales UK released photos of the new Watchkeeper UAV maiden flight in Northern Israel after permission to publish the pictures had been blocked for three weeks because of political considerations, according to industry press reports.

The Watchkeeper, a "fully autonomous" (including automatic takeoff and landing) unmanned aerial vehicle, is expected to assume reconnaissance and target acquisition duties for the British military by 2010, according to Thales.

The robo-platform comes equipped with day/night electro-optic sensors, laser-target designators, and advanced synthetic aperture radar. Information and images collected are transmitted to a network of mobile ground control stations and remote viewing terminals where operators can control missions. It's unarmed but does include a "de-icing capabilit."

Permission to publish the pictures had been blocked by the U.K. Defence Equipment & Support organization since the April 16 maiden flight, according to Flightglobal.com, "due to sensitivities linked to local elections held across the U.K. on 1 May."

The 450-kilogram Watchkeeper, based on the Elbit Hermes 450, will be built jointly by the Israeli company Elbit Systems and the French-owned Thales UK. Starting price was 15 million pounds (more than $29 million) but has reportedly risen to 17 million pounds a pop (more than $33 million), and despite 2,100 lucrative jobs, a good portion of that money will be flying away offshore. There's one reason to be sensitive.

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