The US Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) is developing Automated Aerial Refueling (AAR) capability for autonomous aerial vehicles under a $49 million AFRL program. This new capability will enable an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) to autonomously rendezvous with a tanker aircraft and refuel.

The program has already demonstrated how a single UAV could safely maneuver among seven refueling positions behind a tanker aircraft, and conduct a breakaway maneuver. Currently entering Phase II, more complex flight tests will include autonomous multiship operations and the actual delivery of fuel to a manned surrogate UAV.

This artists concept shows a possible future application of Automated Aerial Refueling in which an unmanned, long-range bomber is refueled in flight.. Photo: Boeing Graphic.

To demonstrate this capability the team is integrating a network of avionic systems simulating the automatic and autonomous refueling process, utilizing multichannel Precision Global Positioning System (GPS)-based navigation system, an automated flight control system, and AAR-specific command and control system components to accomplish boom and receptacle aerial refueling testing.

Non-GPS, sensor-based navigation measurement systems will also be tested in the program’s ‘spiral 2’ phase, facilitating support for probe and drogue refueling.

The ‘AAR Integrator Team’ led by Boeing includes prime contractors Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, plus aerospace suppliers Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, GE Aviation, Rockwell Collins, and the Sierra Nevada Corp. As team leader, Boeing will be responsible for program execution and product delivery.

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