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Tuesday, April 18, 2023

A Change in the Game

A favorite pastime at Aerospace Perceptions headquarters involves breaking out the big telephoto lens (no, the really big one!) and hoping for the right weather and sun conditions to allow photography of United States Air Force refueling operations taking place 26,000 feet overhead. An array of KC-135 Stratotanker, KC-46 Pegasus, and the soon-to-be-retired KC-10 Extender have all been spotted in the skies directly above, providing fuel to thirsty F-15 and F-16 aircraft on patrol. But in the future, the parameters behind such operations may well be very different, with a fundamental change in the game.

Refueling complete, an F-15 banks away from a USAF KC-10 Extender. Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions 

Recently Airbus Defense and Space announced they have taken major steps toward Autonomous Air-to-Air refueling as focus continues to hone in the usage of unmanned aircraft in addition to traditional vehicles. In one test over the Gulf of Cadiz off the shores of Spain, an Airbus A310 MRTT jet tanker interacted with a DT-25 unmanned drone. Control of the drone transitioned from ground control to the airborne tanker, which autonomously directed the DT-25 into position for refueling. Although no fuel was transferred from the tanker to the drone, the operation acted as a proof of concept for the development of autonomous fuel transfer while in flight.

Airbus A310 MRTT in the process of taking a major step toward autonomous refueling. Photo: Airbus 

 “The success of this first flight-test campaign paves the way for developing autonomous and unmanned air-to-air refueling technologies,” said Jean Brice Dumont, Head of Military Air Systems at Airbus Defense and Space, in comments provided by Airbus. “Even though we are at an early stage, we have achieved this within just one year and are on the right track for manned-unmanned teaming and future air force operations where fighters and mission aircraft will fly jointly with drone swarms.”

The full Airbus press release can be found at this link:

Video of the operation is viewable via YouTube: