Airbus achieves autonomous control of drone from tanker aircraft

© Airbus 2023

Airbus completed the first test flight of its Auto’Mate technology demonstrator, showcasing in-flight autonomous guidance and control of a drone using an A310 MRTT tanker. 

The flight took place over the waters of the Gulf of Cadiz in Spain on March 21, 2023. It involved an A310 MRTT flying testbed along with several DT-25 target drones acting as receiver aircraft. 

“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,” Airbus explained in a press release. “The different receivers were controlled and guided until a minimum distance of 150 feet (around 45 meters) from the A310 MRTT.” 

Through its innovation subsidiary Airbus UpNext, the manufacturer focuses on automating the tasks of the receiver aircraft. The Autonomous Formation Flight and Autonomous Air-to-Air refueling (A4R) aims to change the role of the air refueling operator (ARO) to monitor the operation rather than carry it out, reducing crew fatigue and the potential for human error. 

A DT-25 target drone approaching the boom of the A310 MRTT (© Airbus 2023)

Eventually, these technologies will be necessary to operate unmanned combat systems for longer missions.   

“The success of this first flight-test campaign paves the way for developing autonomous and unmanned air-to-air refueling technologies,” said Jean Brice Dumont, Head of Military Air Systems at Airbus Defence and Space. “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.” 

In April 2020, Airbus completed the world’s first automated in-flight aircraft refueling, with an A330 MRTT tanker test aircraft equipped with the Airbus Automatic Air-to-Air Refueling (A3R) system servicing a Portuguese F-16 in flight using a fully automated procedure. Two years later, the A330 MRTT was certified for automatic aerial refueling in daylight by the Spanish National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA).  

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