On 9 May, Airbus Defence & Space announced that in late March the company’s A310 Multirole Tanker/Transport (MRTT) development aircraft had successfully demonstrated a capability for fully automatic air-to-air refuelling (AAR) – the first time this has been achieved anywhere.

Coordinated by the company’s Incubator Laboratory, the test flight involved six separate automatic contacts at 270kt and 25,000ft over a 75-minute period between the MRTT and a Portuguese Air Force F-16, demonstrating a technique the company believes holds great promise for enhancing in-service AAR operations. Both crews reported a faultless operation.

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. It could be introduced on the 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. Innovative passive techniques, including 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 several ways: manually by the ARO; in a relative distance-keeping mode; or in fully automated mode to perform the contact.

The underlying imaging technology was originally used by Airbus’ Space division to develop solutions for refuelling satellites in space or for space debris removal and was further developed and applied by the Incubator Laboratory for the tanking application.

A Portuguese Air Force F-16 proving the possibilities of automatic AAR in a series of tests with the Airbus A310MRTT on 21 March. (Photo: Airbus Defence and Space)

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