Airbus Successfully Demonstrates In-Flight Autonomous Guidance and Control of a Drone from a Tanker Aircraft

Airbus UpNext and Airbus Defence and Space have made a significant breakthrough by achieving in-flight autonomous guidance and control of a drone from a tanker aircraft. This accomplishment marks a significant milestone in the development of Autonomous Formation Flight and Autonomous Air-to-Air refuelling (A4R), and is an important step towards future aerial operations involving both manned and unmanned assets.

The advanced technologies that were used in this test, called Auto’Mate, have the potential to reduce crew fatigue and minimize human error, leading to more effective and efficient operations. Additionally, the implementation of these cutting-edge solutions could reduce crew training costs.

The successful demonstration was conducted using an A310 MRTT flying testbed, which took off from Getafe, Spain, on March 21st. Several DT-25 target drones, acting as receiver aircraft, flew from the Arenosillo Test Centre (CEDEA) at Huelva, Spain. Over the waters of the Gulf of Cadiz, the control of the drone transitioned from a ground station to the A310 MRTT, which autonomously guided the DT-25 to the in-flight refuelling position.

During almost six hours of flight test, the four successively launched receivers were sequentially controlled and commanded thanks to artificial intelligence and cooperative control algorithms, without human interaction. The different receivers were controlled and guided until a minimum distance of 150 feet (around 45 metres) from the A310 MRTT.

The Auto’Mate Demonstrator technology focuses on three pillars: accurate relative navigation, intra-flight communication, and cooperative control algorithms. These technologies were developed by a European team from Spain, Germany, and France, and will continue to increase the capability gap among competitors. These technologies can also be re-used in key technological projects, such as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

A second campaign is expected towards the end of 2023 to explore the use of navigation sensors based on artificial intelligence and enhanced algorithms for autonomous formation flight, as well as demonstrating multi-receiver autonomous operations and collision-avoidance algorithms.

In summary, Airbus UpNext and Airbus Defence and Space have made an impressive achievement by demonstrating in-flight autonomous guidance and control of a drone from a tanker aircraft, using advanced technologies that have the potential to improve operational efficiency, reduce crew fatigue and minimize human error. This demonstration marks a significant milestone towards the development of Autonomous Formation Flight and Autonomous Air-to-Air refuelling (A4R), which could be used in various applications, including the Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

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