Airbus has trialed in-flight drone guidance and control with an A310 multirole tanker transport aircraft in Spain.
The test is part of Autonomous Formation flight and Autonomous Air-to-Air Refueling, an effort to modernize high-altitude refueling missions through manned and unmanned aerial systems.
Technologies produced under the project are expected to decrease human error, crew fatigue, and training costs.
During the trial, Airbus flew the A310 from Gestafe with Auto’Mate, an artificial intelligence demonstrator that maintains navigation, communication, and control algorithms between a tanker and receiver.
Several DT-25 target drones were deployed simultaneously from Arenosillo Test Center in Huelva to act as receiver aircraft.
Do-DT55 target drone at FCAS multi-domain flight demo. Photo: Airbus
The DT-25 autonomous control transitioned from the A310 ground station to an in-flight refueling position over the Gulf of Cadiz.
The demonstration ended with four launched receivers successfully operating through the Auto’Mate technology without human interaction at a minimum distance of 150 feet (46 meters) from the multirole tanker for nearly six flight hours.
The next phase of the Auto’Mate demonstration is scheduled for late 2023. It will focus on navigation sensor capabilities based on artificial intelligence and enhanced algorithms for autonomous flight.
The campaign will be followed by tests on two drones with A310 to evaluate multi-receiver autonomous flight and collision avoidance.
Future use of the technology will involve integration into multinational military projects such as the Future Combat Air System program.
“The success of this first flight-test campaign paves the way for developing autonomous and unmanned air-to-air refuelling technologies,” Airbus Defence and Space Military Air Systems Head Jean Brice Dumont stated.
“Even though we are at an early stage, we have achieved this within just one year and are on the right track for manned-unmanned teaming and future air force operations where fighters and mission aircraft will fly jointly with drone swarms.”