Stepping Toward Pilotless Aerial Refueling

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Northrop Grumman announced Wednesday that its Jan. 21 flight of an autonomous Global Hawk and a manned Proteus test aircraft sets the stage for autonomous aerial refueling between two unmanned aircraft. The two aircraft flew as close as 40 feet apart at 45,000 feet, which Northrop says sets an industry record. The flight studied wake turbulence effects, engine performance, and flight control responsiveness at altitude. Northrop is working toward a spring 2012 flight that would demonstrate autonomous aerial refueling of two Global Hawks as part of the company's KQ-X program. According to Northrop, that program may be just the tip of the spear. "When you add autonomous flight of both aircraft into the mix, as we will do later in the KQ-X program, you gain a capability that has mission applications far beyond just aerial refueling," said program manager Geoffry Sommer.

Northrop says that success in the KQ-X program, which is funded by DARPA to the tune of $33 million, would enable flights lasting as long as one week. The program follows on a successful 2006 test in which DARPA and NASA used an F-18 "as a surrogate unmanned aircraft" refueled by a 707 tanker's refueling boom.