Northrop Grumman, National Air and Space Agency (NASA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are planning to demonstrate aerial refueling of a NASA Global Hawk autonomous aerial vehicles by a sister ship. The program will be designated KQ-X.
The agency allocated US$33 million for Northrop Grumman, to conduct the autonomous refueling demonstration within the next two years. The demonstration perform the first-ever fully autonomous rendezvous, rejoin, station keeping, aerial refueling, and formation separation of two unmanned aircraft. The flight will be conducted at altitudes typically flown by the Global Hawk’, hence, overcoming inherent limitations of high altitude flight in thin atmosphere and limited control authority associated with long-endurance aircraft. “The importance of aerial refueling is clear in the way military aviation depends on it today,” said Jim McCormick, the DARPA program manager for KQ-X. “This demonstration will go a long way towards making those same advantages a reality for the next generation of unmanned aircraft.” A successful outcome will allow developers of future unmanned aircraft to produce more cost-effective systems that rely on aerial refueling for the most demanding missions.
Northrop Grumman will retrofit two of the high altitude long endurance (HALE) UAVs, one aircraft pumping fuel into the other in flight through a hose-and-drogue refueling system. The aerial refueling engagement will be completely autonomous. Engineering work will be accomplished at the Northrop Grumman Unmanned Systems Development Center in Rancho Bernardo, California. Pilots from NASA, NOAA, and Northrop Grumman will fly the Global Hawks from the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, also in California. Sargent Fletcher, Inc. and Sierra Nevada Corporation are major KQ-X subcontractors.