This New Autonomous Air-To-Air Refueling System Will Radically Boost Aircraft Endurance

In a significant stride toward revolutionizing aerial refueling, Airbus spearheads the development of disruptive technology known as Auto’Mate. This fully autonomous in-flight refueling system, a product of collaboration between Airbus Defence and Space and Airbus UpNext, is set to transform military force projection capabilities, with implications extending to defense and civil aviation sectors.

Auto’Mate, showcased in a successful demonstration last March and further validated in a recent flight test campaign in November 2023, marks a pivotal moment in autonomous in-flight refueling. This technology enables autonomous assets for air-to-air refueling (A4R) operations, controlling unmanned drones during refueling operations, and simulating complex manoeuvers under the guidance of an A310 MRTT tanker.

By eliminating human intervention, Auto’Mate allows an aerial tanker to take command of a “receiver” aircraft from a distance, guiding it autonomously into the optimal refueling position. The process involves advanced AI-based relative navigation and cooperative control technologies, ensuring safety, reliability, and efficiency. Notably, this innovation allows for refueling non-piloted combat air vehicles, drones, and “loyal wingman” operations, aligning with Europe’s Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

The benefits of autonomous in-flight refueling extend beyond enhanced safety and efficiency. The technology facilitates operations in low-visibility conditions and reduces training costs for flight crews. Crucially, Auto’Mate paves the way for future autonomous tankers and aerial assets operating without a crew on board.

Airbus is concentrating on three key technological foundations to advance autonomous in-flight refuelling: precision Navigation utilizing cameras, satellite positioning, and LiDAR sensors; secure and covert multi-node Communications for guiding multiple “receiver” aircraft; and autonomous Control systems managing critical flight parameters with built-in collision avoidance functionalities.

Drawing on its extensive experience, Airbus is well-positioned to lead in this domain. The A330 MRTT, with its fly-by-wire control for the refueling probe and high-definition 2D/3D digital system, exemplifies Airbus’s commitment to innovation. With 60 units ordered by various nations, the aircraft has proven its capabilities in military deployments and humanitarian operations, solidifying Airbus’s position as a leader in the multi-role tanker transport sector.

The evolution of Auto’Mate technology showcases Airbus’s dedication to advancing the frontiers of autonomous aviation.

Source: Airbus UpNext

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