Commercial, Military

NAVAIR Flight Tests Autonomous Aerial Refueling 

By Woodrow Bellamy III | September 11, 2013
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The Navy is continuing the development of its Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program, recently completing another phase of its Autonomous Aerial Refueling (AAR) tests with an optionally piloted Learjet. 
(Calspan Learjet, shown with inert probe in aerial refueling observation position, flies as a surrogate autonomous aircraft and is outfitted with the X-47B‘s navigation, command and control, and vision processor hardware and software. Photo, courtesy of CTSI, via NAVAIR.)
On Sept. 6, in Niagra Falls, N.Y., Northrop Grumman assisted the Navy with AAR test flight using a Calspan Learjet equipped with navigation and vision processor software from the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator aircraft. The Calspan Learjet was used as a "surrogate" aircraft, and flew autonomously with a pilot onboard, behind an Omega K-707 aerial refueling tanker equipped with a refueling interface system and tanker operator station. 

“The AAR segment of the UCAS-D program is intended to demonstrate technologies, representative systems, and procedures that will enable unmanned systems to safely approach and maneuver around tanker aircraft. We are demonstrating both Navy and Air Force style refueling techniques,” said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy Unmanned Combat Air System program manager.
NAVAIR is using the AAR test flights to assess the capabilities of X-47B AAR navigation systems, for possible future use aboard aircraft carriers. Engdahl said the test flights are proving that the concept of of the distributed control of UAS systems launched from aircraft carriers can be transferred to the airborne refueling environment. 
(From the pilot‘s perspective, the Calspan Learjet inert probe approaches an Omega Tanker drogue. Photo, courtesy of Northrop Grumman.)
The government-industry team used the systems architecture for the AAR test flights that it did for its carrier launched X-47B trials earlier this summer. 
“By demonstrating that we can add an automated aerial refueling capability to unmanned or optionally manned aircraft, we can significantly increase their range, persistence and flexibility,” said Engdahl. “This is a game-changer for unmanned carrier aviation.”
Later this fall the Navy will resume aerial refueling testing using a completely autonomous setup. 

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