Airbus tanker plane takes autonomous control of multiple drones
In another milestone on the road to fully Autonomous Formation Flight and Autonomous Air-to-Air Refueling (A4R), Airbus Defence and Space has autonomously guided and controlled a drone using an A310 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) flying testbed.
Air-to-air refueling is one of the key technologies that provide air forces with a global reach and the ability to extend mission duration indefinitely. However, being able to transfer fuel from one aircraft to a very different aircraft with very different flight performance is a very difficult exercise that requires a high degree of skill and concentration.
Airbus, working with its subsidiary Airbus UpNext, is working on a set of technologies developed by Spain, Germany, and France called Auto'Mate that is designed to cut down on crew fatigue, human error, and training costs while making refueling operations more effective, by automating the process.
Taking place over the Gulf of Cadiz off the south coast of Span, the recent test took place on March 21 and involved the A310 MRTT and several DT-25 target drones that simulated the aircraft that would be receiving fuel in a real operation. During the six-hour flight, control of the drones was successfully transferred from a ground station to the tanker.
The system then used artificial intelligence and cooperative control algorithms to control and command four drones, bringing them to within 150 ft (45 m) of the tanker while in the proper position for refueling. During this, Auto'Mate controlled relative navigation of the aircraft, communicated between the craft to improve autonomy, and provided fine-control guidance to avoid collisions and other problems.
A second tranche of tests is scheduled for the end of the year using navigation sensors based on artificial intelligence and improved algorithms, as well as including two more simulated drones to show that the A310 MRTT can operate in a crowded airspace.
"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 Defence and Space. "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."
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