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Navy Getting Very Close to UAV Aerial Refueling

by John Reed on January 26, 2012

So, the Navy just took a big step toward achieving the military’s goal of having UAV’s capable of mid-air refueling.

Last month, a Navy Learjet equipped with flight control software and refueling hardware from the service’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator jet autonomously completed a mock air-to-air refueling from a Boeing 707-based tanker (shown in the picture above, note the safety pilot you can see in the Learjet’s cockpit).

Remember, the Northrop Grumman-made X-47B is designed to prove that a stealthy, fighter-size drone can be operated from aircraft carriers and perform long-range strike, ISR and aerial refueling missions. X-47B is meant to pave the way for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) combat drone, set to enter service later this decade.

The technology used in the refueling tests is similar to this tech that will be used to allow the X-47B to take-off and land aboard aircraft carriers.

From a NAVAIR press release:

“The AAR segment of the program is intended to demonstrate a system that will enable the X-47B UCAS-D to safely approach and maneuver around tanker aircraft, performing both Navy and Air Force style refueling techniques,” said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager.

The Navy has been working closely with the Air Force Research Lab for the past decade to develop technologies and operating concepts for AAR, Engdahl said. Both services share a common goal of enabling tankers to autonomously refuel manned and unmanned aircraft in the future, he added.

The UCAS-D team began this test phase in November when a team from Northrop Grumman installed X-47B hardware and software on a Calspan Learjet surrogate aircraft. The initial ground and taxi tests culminated in the first AAR test flight Dec. 20.

The team then conducted a series of flights using the surrogate aircraft, equipped with X-47B software and hardware, and an Omega K-707 Tanker. The Learjet successfully completed multiple air-refueling test points autonomously while commanded by a ground operator.

The AAR segment of the UCAS-D program is designed to assess the initial functionality of the X-47B AAR systems and navigation performance, as well as to test the government tanker refueling interface systems. The AAR program is using similar command and control, and navigation processes being demonstrated by the UCAS team aboard the aircraft carrier.

This is a major step in advancing the flight control systems that allow UAVs to safely fly extremely close to other aircraft and execute potentially dangerous missions. Keep in mind that so-called, automatic sense-and-avoid technology is the key to allowing drones to safely fly in crowded airspace to keep things like this from happening. Once sense and avoid is perfected, you’ll see UAVs regularly flying aerial refueling missions and others that require serious interaction with other aircraft, manned and unmanned. You might even see them cleared by the FAA to fly in civil airspace.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

blight January 26, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Automated refueling would also be helpful for manned aircraft. Refueling is a tricky procedure, and a number of aircraft have suffered accidents during refueling. Refueling accidents doom not only the aircraft on the end, but the tanker as well.

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Val January 26, 2012 at 1:30 pm

not neccessarily….the receiving aircraft usally at the short end, so to speak…

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Rob January 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm

UAV's are being over done. In any conflict with any major world power these are useless & will just be captured like the one in Iran or disrupted in flight.

With budgets going limited, we should focus on making our military more efficient & adaptable for all types of conflicts.

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notasblindasyou January 26, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I'm still of the mind that we let them keep that downed drone instead of blasting it with a cruise missile or another drone strike. It was most likely another Trojan virus to disrupt their military systems.

I would however like to note that the software is already written apparently and all a enemy govt would need to do to catch up with us is steal the code from our country's computer network. scary if you ask me.

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Dave January 26, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Bet that the secrets to this tech will be left on networked PC's and eventually stolen by the Chinese.

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Jeff January 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Is there any reason the larger fuel tanker aircraft can't just be replaced with equally large UAVs?

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WulfTheSaxon January 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm

See the appropriately-named KQ-X.

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Sanem January 27, 2012 at 6:17 am

KQ-X: they're looking into using Global Hawks as tankers

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Val January 26, 2012 at 1:32 pm

who needs them as long as we have the magnificent 59 KC-10's operating in the skies?

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STemplar January 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Ask and ye shall receive, good to read positive news about the program. I wonder how the landing tests are going. I think they were supposed to start the mock carrier ones this year.

It's tough to over state if this program pans out what a leap it will be for carrier strike.

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Jayson January 26, 2012 at 2:08 pm

If it proves safer technology, then roll it out to the whole line of A/C. Pilots just fly to the tanker then flip a switch and the electronics take over. I can see tech being more responsive to the various turbulances to compensate or not over compensate for them.

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Lance January 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Interesting.

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Elijah January 26, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Scholar next.

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AF—wd January 26, 2012 at 8:13 pm

getting this going with multi-tanker cells will be a godsend…managing air traffic going in and coming off of multi-tanker cells is a freaking nightmare.

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Stephen Russell January 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Used mega drone airship tankers in movie Stealth, 2005.
Can see some X47s rigged for Mid air refuelling, awesome.
Or modify some KC 10s?

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blight January 26, 2012 at 9:19 pm

X47s aren't big enough for mass refueling. Maybe a buddy system setup like the Super Hornets have?

Extensive hardware modifications to the refueling systems aren't called for: not reinventing the wheel, and not compromising compatibility with manned aircraft refueling systems if possible.

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monty January 27, 2012 at 9:34 am

The benefit of a UAV is the ability to take out hard targets without putting a risk a pilot. We will always have pilots because of our flexibility and ability to adapt as human beings. You can sense your battlefield environment sitting in a room playing XBOX.

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blight January 27, 2012 at 9:46 am

Vietnam taught us a lot about wasting pilots lives on dangerous missions in a contested air environment.

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Jeffdulin January 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm

WHEN will we develope a wing tank mountable UAV in the same manner we have the JDAM package. A flyable computer set of wings that can be mounted on a disosable std. drop tank and use to refule these UAV or single ship situations. These might be able to be sub/tube a lunched item. Why risk air crews and provide BIG targets with KC135/KC10 etc when we could make a kit that would strp on and fly a cheapm disposable drop tank we already have? huummmm?

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Ems January 29, 2012 at 5:01 am

Does anyone know if this is GPS or radar? It's quite an impressive achievement, i just assumed it was radar based but the link implies it might be gps based…which is pretty scary in contested airspace/jamming environment.

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Zach January 26, 2012 at 1:19 pm

You might be able to jury-rig the same type of system that is on that learjet into the tankers for pretty cheap…

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Jeff January 26, 2012 at 3:21 pm

First who says it can't be retrofitted.

Second, the the KC-46A is a medium tanker and KC-X was to only replace the KC-135Rs; a lighter refueling tanker for access to less accessible fields, hence the concerns with the Airbus' design being too big, but the idea's been to eventually have new heavy tankers to replace KC-10s and eventually supplement the KC-46A. Such a new development program could incorporate additional requirements for autonomy.

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Cthel January 27, 2012 at 4:29 am

Once you have air-to-air refuelling, the limiting factor becomes the supply of lubricating oil for the engine. That's what limits the endurance of air force one to 48 hours, for example

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Sanem January 27, 2012 at 6:14 am

apparently it'll be 72 hours for the X-47B

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Mike January 27, 2012 at 8:44 am

The first thing that goes away after fuel is engine oil. There is a limit to how long a jet engine can run if no contingency for additional oil is made. This was a major concern when the B-2's flew to Kosovo and back (44hrs). But the issue was resolved.

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blight January 27, 2012 at 8:15 am

Which is why KC-135s are overdue for the scrapyard.

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marrs101 January 28, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Is "re-oiling" feasible? Or connecting a double barrel pipe to the aircraft would be just to difficult/risky?

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blight January 29, 2012 at 9:36 am

It would mean opening up a closed-circuit lubricant system to the environment through refueling hardware. It introduces the possibility of oil leaks, and once you have an oil leak things go south a lot quicker than they would with a fuel leak.

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