MQ-25 refueling drone put to the test in manned-unmanned virtual exercise
In anticipation of the day when drones routinely refuel US Navy planes in the air, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have carried out carrier air wing team refueling in a simulation. The virtual Manned-UnManned Teaming (MUM-T) capabilities exercise included an autonomous MQ-25 Stingray robotic tanker, an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter, and an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne command-and-control aircraft.
The MQ-25 has already carried out a real-world refueling of an F/A-18, but the eventual plan is for the drone to be able to operate from a conventional aircraft carrier to refuel F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, and F-35C Lightning II aircraft, leaving crewed aircraft free for more complex duties.
However, in order to do this, the MQ-25 has to be able to work with other aircraft and human pilots as part of a team, with a minimum of modifications to the pilot's current cockpit interfaces.
To learn more about how to accomplish this, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, under the sponsorship of the Office of Naval Research, used a Northrop Grumman portable E-2D simulator and Boeing F/A-18 simulators to set up a data link to mimic supervising MQ-25 flight operations under actual flight software.
For the simulated exercise, the E-2D was assigned the role of air wing “tanker king” to supervise the MQ-25 during refueling operations as well as during an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission. This was achieved with standard software and required only minimal changes to the crew interfaces on both the E-2D and the F/A-18, which was the simulated refueling recipient.
The exercise also called on a high degree of machine intelligence on the part of the MQ-25, which allowed the human teammates to act less like controllers and more like coaches ordering prearranged plays. Later demonstrations will include working with interface enhancements, autonomous behaviors and resilient, protected networks.
“This demonstration of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye controlling the MQ-25 builds on our experience in integrating unmanned systems into carrier flight operations,” says Janice Zilch, vice president, Manned Airborne Surveillance Programs at Northrop Grumman. “As the airborne command and control node, E-2D will be a critical component to enabling the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Campaign Framework. We work closely with industry partners and the Navy in support of meaningful technology demonstrations that showcase E-2D’s agile environment, interoperability and unmatched command and control capabilities.”