FARNBOROUGH NEWS: Primes Investing in Autonomous Aerial Refueling Tech

By Meredith Roaten

Boeing photo

FARNBOROUGH, United Kingdom — The Air Force is looking for its next aerial refueling tanker, and the competitors vying for the contract revealed some new autonomous capabilities at the Farnborough National Airshow.

The competition for a new variant of tanker could be a showdown between a Boeing aircraft and new Lockheed Martin platform based on an Airbus body. Now, autonomous capabilities could be in the mix.

Lockheed Martin is working with Airbus to adapt the body of its A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport into the LMXT to compete for the program. Boeing’s Pegasus KC-46 aircraft is the tanker currently used by the Air Force.

Tim Flood, Boeing’s senior regional director of international business development for Europe and the Americas, told reporters that autonomous refueling on KC-46A is one of many autonomous capabilities that the company is working on. He pointed to the MQ-28 Ghost Bat unmanned aircraft and the extra-large underwater uncrewed vehicle, the Orca, which are both under development.

“The autonomous refueling is sort of part of that broader enterprise perspective on how we’re bringing autonomy to the customer,” he said July 20. “So, we’ve done some flight testing already on autonomous refueling, and that’s a feature that we’re continuing to grow down track.”

Boeing has the advantage of supplying a tanker to the Air Force for many years. But problems have run rampant in the KC-46 program.

For example, the platform’s remote visual system that allows pilots to refuel had design flaws. The company reached an agreement with the Air Force to fix the system at Boeing’s expense.

Flood deferred to the Air Force to reveal when the upgrades would be completed but noted Boeing is in the first part of the design review.

“They're happy with what we've produced in the design review,” he said. “So, I've no reason to think there's any issue with the path moving forward.”

Meanwhile, Airbus announced this week its A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport is certified for automatic air-to-air refueling, or A3R, boom operations in daylight. The company claims to be first in the world for this kind of certification.

Airbus worked with the Royal Singapore Air Force to pilot the technology. It also developed enhanced maintenance technology alongside the autonomous technology. The Spanish National Institute for Aerospace Technology performed the certification, according to a press release.

Airbus is also building a demonstrator to further develop its autonomous capabilities such as air-to-air refueling and formation flight operations. The technology developed by the “Auto’Mate” demonstrator will be used in a 2023 test flight, according to the company.

The technology will be “a disruptive step forward” in current autonomous operations — a “highly” in demand capability — that will reduce crew fatigue and training costs, according to a press release from the company.

Airbus expects to demonstrate an “end-to-end” flight in mid-2024, the release stated.

While companies are advertising their most advanced capabilities, their efforts may not make a difference in the competition. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said he could cancel the competition if the demand for the aircraft doesn’t pick up.

He told lawmakers during a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this spring that a final decision on the competition had not been made.


Topics: Air Force News, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Air Power

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