The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has awarded a Boeing team a four-year contract worth $49 million to continue to develop technology that will enable a UAV to autonomously rendezvous with a tanker aircraft and refuel.
Under Phase II of the Automated Aerial Refueling (AAR) program, the industry team, formally known as the AAR Integrator Team, will coordinate flight tests that will include autonomous multiship operations and the actual delivery of fuel to a manned surrogate UAV.
During Phase I of the AAR program, a Boeing-led government-industry team demonstrated that a single UAV could safely maneuver among seven refueling positions behind a tanker aircraft and conduct a breakaway maneuver. That demonstration involved a Calspan Learjet that was equipped as a UAV and flew behind a KC-135R.
Phase II will be divided into two parts, or spirals.
During Spiral 1, the team will work collaboratively to design, build, and integrate a multichannel precision GPS-based navigation system, an automated flight-control system, and AAR-specific command-and-control system components to accomplish boom and receptacle aerial refueling testing to be conducted by AFRL. All of this will be based on nonproprietary, hypothetical aircraft models that represent a variety of current and future U.S. Air Force missions.
Spiral 2 will consist of the team conducting trade studies and evaluating non-GPS, sensor-based navigation measurement systems to augment the Spiral 1 GPS sensors. Once added to the system, the non-GPS sensors potentially will provide support for U.S. Navy and NATO-style probe and drogue refueling.
The team also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and Electronic Systems business units, GE Aviation, Rockwell Collins, and the Sierra Nevada Corp. As team leader, Boeing will be responsible for program execution and product delivery.
Further development of the AAR technology is expected to provide beneficial applications for both manned and unmanned vehicles. For UAVs, it will allow more flexibility in both deployment and use. In the case of manned missions, the use of an AAR system will reduce pilot workload in the cockpit while also providing an in-weather refueling capability.