The US Navy and Northrop Grumman have completed another phase of autonomous aerial refuelling (AAR) test, intended to significantly increase the endurance and range of the X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator (UCAS-D).
During the test, being conducted in Niagara Falls, New York, US, a Calspan-built Learjet equipped with navigation and vision processor software from the X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demonstrator aircraft assisted the AAR test flight.
As a surrogate aircraft, the Learjet conducted a series of autonomous flights, behind an Omega K-707 aerial refuelling tanker, fitted with a refuelling interface system and tanker operator station.
The navy’s unmanned combat air system programme manager, Captain Jaime Engdahl, said the AAR trials aim to demonstrate technologies, representative systems and procedures that allow the unmanned systems to safely approach and manoeuvre around tanker aircraft.
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"Demonstrating AAR technologies and standard refueling procedures is the next logical step for our demonstration programme," Engdahl said.
The team is applying both navy and air force style refuelling techniques as well as demonstrating that the same systems architecture extends the autonomous systems distributed control concept from the aircraft carrier to the airborne refuelling environment, according to Engdahl.
The trials have been designed to assess the final X-47B AAR systems functionality and navigation performance as well as validate the government tanker refuelling interface systems.
"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," Engdahl continued.
The US Navy is planning to resume aerial refuelling testing using a completely autonomous setup, later this year.
Image: US Navy’s X-47B aircraft aboard a aircraft carrier. Photo: courtesy of US Navy.