UAV Next Step: Autonomous Aerial Refueling

By Scott Spangler on July 15th, 2010

It seems that the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles will soon be complete. On July 1, DARPA announced a $33 million dollar contract for Northrop Grumman to demonstrate autonomous aerial refueling using two NASA Global Hawks.

Tandem NASA Global Hawk Refuel The company will retrofit the UAVs with a probe-and-drogue system, with one being the tanker and the other being thirsty. The company didn’t give a lot of information on what it meant by autonomous, so let’s assume that the two UAVs will be programmed to meet at a specific location and time and the onboard systems will take it from there.

Just to make the accomplishment special, to quote the release, the refueling will “take place at a much higher altitude than has been previously demonstrated with manned aircraft. It will also be the first time that [high altitude, long endurance] UAVs have flown in formation.”

One wonder’s how high? Given manned tanker performance, most midair refueling takes place between 20,000 and 35,000 feet? (What say you experts in JetWhine land with first-hand experience?) The Global Hawk’s service ceiling is 65,000 feet, and unrefueled it has a published endurance of 36 hours.

The notice said the technology that makes this autonomous feat possible will benefit manned flight as well because it will reduce pilot workload. Yeah, automation does that.

As previously discussed (See UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence, UND Plants Seed of No-Pilot Airliners, and  No-Pilot Aircraft Go Vertical & Hover) it may eventually affect the military and civilian job market, or at least change a pilot’s job description. And let’s not forget another Global Hawk First: FAA clearance for operation in US national airspace.  —Scott Spangler

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One Response to “UAV Next Step: Autonomous Aerial Refueling”

  1. Eric Says:

    Very cool. What they dont show is the thirsty one loaded with hellfire missiles and a tanker version of the UAV.

    Automating refueling is a great idea. Especially if you could have automated refueling of an F22 by a UAV in a combat zone.

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