Airbus UpNext, a wholly-owned subsidiary, has demonstrated its Auto‘Mate autonomous inflight refueling technology. During a flight from Getafe, Spain, on March 21, Airbus’s A310 MRTT tanker testbed autonomously guided a succession of four Airbus Do-DT25 drones to an established position behind the extended refueling boom of the tanker.
Both the tanker and drones had the Auto’Mate system integrated. The four drones were successively ramp-launched from the Centro de Experimentación de El Arenosillo (CEDEA, Arenosillo test center) at Huelva. Control of each drone was transitioned from ground station to the A310 over the Gulf of Cadiz. The flight test lasted for nearly six hours, during which the drones were sequentially guided by artificial intelligence (AI) and cooperative control algorithms to a position behind the tanker. A minimum distance of 150 feet was achieved.
“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.”
Auto’Mate is based on three pillars: accurate relative navigation to precisely plot the relative position, speed, and attitude between tanker and receiver; intra-flight communication between different assets; and cooperative control algorithms to provide guidance, coordination, consensus, and collision-avoidance functions between the air vehicles. While the test is seen as a first step towards autonomous air-to-air refueling, the technology is also being developed for autonomous formation flight for other applications such as the operation of uncrewed remote carriers within the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). Developers from all three FCAS nations—France, Germany, and Spain—are involved in the program.
Further trials are scheduled for later in the year, with an accent on AI-based navigation sensors and enhanced autonomous formation flight algorithms. The trials will also integrate two simulated drones flying near to the A310 MRTT to explore multi-receiver refueling operations and collision-avoidance algorithms.