Unmanned drone flies among actual planes for first time in the UK

Drones and planes intermingle in the same patch of sky in first test by air traffic controllers.

An unmanned drone has flown in British civil-controlled airspace for the first time, air traffic controllers NATS has announced.

On September 30th a Thales Watchkeeper took off from West Wales Airport and took part in 3 hour flight which saw the craft enter civil controlled airspace for about an hour - essentially sharing the same sky as normal civilian aeroplanes.

Surprisingly this was the first time such a test has taken place. Previously drones - and we're talking big, plane-sized drones here, not consumer quadcopters - have only flown in tightly segregated airspace.

Plane sailing

According to NATS, from an air traffic control perspective it worked exactly the same as with a normal plane. The only difference was that the pilots were sat in a control room at the airport rather than up in the sky. And the good news is that it appeared to work perfectly.

Simon Hocquard, NATS Operations Strategy Director, said: "What we set out to prove is that it is possible to safely integrate and control a UAS in non-segregated airspace with conventional aircraft. Once you do that you open up enormous potential future opportunities for unmanned flight that go well beyond the kind of lightweight UAS that we're all familiar with."

The tests will help with "regulatory and procedure design", so that eventually large drones can be used for tasks such as unmanned air freight, search and rescue, telecommunications relays and environmental monitoring. A second test is already planned for next week - so in the future when Amazon is raining parcels from the skies we could look back on this week as a key moment in the development of the technology.