Autonomous Aerial Refueling

In a groundbreaking development, Airbus has unveiled Auto’Mate, a disruptive technology designed to revolutionize the process of aerial refueling. Auto’Mate, developed by Airbus Defense and Space in collaboration with Airbus UpNext, its innovation subsidiary, aims to automate in-flight refueling and has the potential for wider applications in both the defense and civil aviation sectors. The introduction of this technology marks a significant milestone in military force projection capabilities.

The conventional procedures for in-flight refueling require precise coordination between the crew of an aerial tanker and the pilot of the receiving aircraft. However, by integrating autonomous technologies, the process can be streamlined, enhancing safety, reliability, and efficiency. Auto’Mate eliminates the need for human intervention during the refueling process, allowing an aerial tanker to assume control of a receiver aircraft from a distance of several kilometers. The technology guides and controls the receiver aircraft into the correct position for fuel transfer using high-precision cameras, LiDAR sensors, artificial intelligence algorithms, and advanced communication networks.

One of the key advantages of Auto’Mate is its ability to conduct in-flight refueling operations in low visibility conditions, which were previously challenging for human operators. This capability enhances operational effectiveness and opens up possibilities for fuel transfer in adverse weather conditions. Additionally, Auto’Mate enables the refueling of non-piloted combat air vehicles such as drones. This breakthrough technology can also be leveraged in remote carriers and “loyal wingman” operations, critical components of Europe’s Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

By leveraging three primary technological components, Airbus is pushing the boundaries of autonomous aerial refueling. These components include the integration of cameras with varying resolutions and fields of view, high-precision satellite global positioning, LiDAR sensors, advanced intra-flight communication networks, and cooperative control and collision avoidance algorithms. The synergy of these elements ensures precise and safe fuel transfer between aerial tankers and receiving aircraft.

Airbus’s extensive experience in the domain of aerial tankers provides a strong foundation for the development of Auto’Mate. The company’s A310 MRTT, which entered service in 2004, was followed by the new-generation A330 MRTT. Airbus has been at the forefront of advancements in this sector, pioneering the use of fly-by-wire control for refueling probes and developing high-definition 2D/3D digital systems for improved visibility during the refueling process.

The A330 MRTT has cemented Airbus’s position as a leader in the multi-role tanker transport sector. With a total of 60 A330 MRTTs ordered by countries such as Australia, France, NATO, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, Airbus has already proven the effectiveness and reliability of its aerial tanker solutions. These aircraft have accumulated thousands of flight hours supporting military deployments and humanitarian operations worldwide.

The integration of Auto’Mate technology represents a significant leap forward in aerial refueling capabilities. Its automation features enhance safety, reliability, and efficiency, reducing the burden on flight crews and lowering training costs. Furthermore, this technology sets the stage for future advancements, including the possibility of autonomous aerial tankers without a crew on board. Airbus’s commitment to innovation and its expertise in aerial tankers position the company at the forefront of aviation advancements, enabling them to take the next step in aerial refueling with Auto’Mate.