Airbus Defence and Space claims to have achieved a world first with the successful demonstration of automatic air-to-air refuelling (AAR) contacts with a fighter aircraft from a tanker’s refuelling boom.
The company’s A310 MRTT development aircraft performed six automatic contacts with an F-16 of the Portuguese Air Force in a demonstration of a technique which the company believes can enhance in-service AAR operations, especially in adverse weather conditions.
The system requires no additional equipment on the receiver and is intended to reduce boom operator workload, improve safety, and optimise the rate of AAR in operational conditions to maximise combat efficiency.
The company indicates the system — being developed as part of the Smart MRTT programme — could be introduced on current production A330 MRTT as soon as 2019.
Initial approach and tracking of the receiver is performed by the tanker’s Air Refuelling Operator (ARO) as usual. Passive techniques such as image processing are then used to determine the receiver’s refuelling receptacle position and when the automated system is activated, a fully automated flight control system directs the boom towards the receiver’s receptacle.
The telescopic beam inside the boom can be controlled in a range of ways including: manually by the ARO; a relative distance-keeping mode; or full auto-mode to perform the contact.
In a flight off the Portuguese coast on 21st March, the tanker performed the scheduled six contacts, at flight conditions of 270KT and 25,000ft over a 1hr 15min test period.
The imaging technology underlying the Automatic AAR technique was originally used by Airbus’ Space division to develop solutions for refuelling satellites in space or for space debris removal.