Boeing Demonstrates Automated Aerial Refueling Capability

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Automated flight systems took another step forward in August, when Boeing's Automated Aerial Refueling test program successfully demonstrated for the first time an unmanned air vehicle's ability to autonomously maintain a steady refueling station behind a tanker aircraft, the company said this week. The idea is to develop UAVs that will be able to fly up to a tanker and refuel themselves. "This can enable a quicker response for time-critical targets and will reduce the need for forward-staging refueling areas," said David Riley, manager of the program for Boeing Phantom Works. "Another benefit is increased in-theater military presence with fewer military assets." The flight tests were conducted with the New York Air National Guard 107th Air Refueling Wing, which provided a KC-135R refueling tanker, and Calspan Corp., which provided a Learjet equipped with a special Boeing flight-control system that allowed it to fly as an unmanned air vehicle (though a crew was actually occupying the Learjet’s flight deck). The flight tests integrate components on both the tanker and receiver aircraft to demonstrate that the receiver aircraft (the UAV) can autonomously hold position relative to the tanker while the tanker executes its standard air refueling maneuvers.

Six flights were conducted with the Boeing flight-control system engaged, which enabled the Learjet to autonomously hold various positions in space -- contact, pre-contact or observation -- around the KC-135R. During a flight on Aug. 15, the Learjet was flown manually to the contact position behind the KC-135R -- the point from which Air Force aircraft receive fuel from a tanker's refueling boom. The aircraft's flight-control system was then engaged, said Riley, and it autonomously held the contact position for 23 minutes while the tanker flew two full air refueling orbits, or holding patterns.