Automated in-flight refueling has come to large aircraft after Airbus Defence and Space and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) conducted the first Automatic Air-to-Air (A3R) refueling between an Airbus 310 development tanker and a RAAF KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport. Previously demonstrated using a fighter aircraft, the June 20, 2018 exercise off the coast of Spain saw the two aircraft make seven automatic contacts.

Air-to-air refueling is one of the key technologies of modern air forces. The capability to transfer fuel from a tanker plane to another aircraft allows air fleets to extend their reach to a global scale or keep assets like surveillance aircraft on station for longer times. However, getting two very different aircraft to fly in sync at hundreds of miles an hour while hooking up a pipeline filled with inflammable fuel between them is a very difficult task that requires a great deal of skill and practice.

Aside from the fact that this makes air-to-air refueling reliant on expensive personnel, the development of new Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) means that not only will tanker aircraft have to be able to refuel UAVs, but robotic tankers are also under development that will have to be able to do the job themselves. To do this while taking the pressure off human operators means producing autonomous systems that can conduct refueling.

According to Airbus, the automated refueling begins as the tanker's Air Refuelling Operator (ARO) handles the first approach of the receiving aircraft and deploys the boom. The computer then uses passive techniques like image processing to seek out the receiver's refueling receptacle position and the automated system then comes online to fly the boom and keep it aligned with the receptor. During the operation, the system allows for manual control by the ARO, automatically keeping the two planes at a relative distance, or taking full automatic control of the operation.

During the June 20 demonstration off the southern Spanish coast, the two aircraft made seven contacts over two hours in conjunction with Test Pilots and Flight Test Engineers from the RAAF's Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU).

"It was extremely impressive to see how accurately the A3R system tracks the receiver," says David Piatti, who acted as Airbus Test ARO, or "boomer", on the A310. "It can be very useful to be able to refuel another tanker or transport, for example to extend its deployment range or to avoid taking fuel back to base, but it is also a challenging operation and this system has the potential to reduce workload and the risk involved."

Video of the operation can be viewed below.

Source: Airbus

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