Airbus A310 and DT-25 drone complete first "mock" refueling

In a significant "first" for Airbus, an Airbus A310 successfully completed a "mock" mid-air refueling procedure with an autonomous DT-25 drone.
Christopher McFadden
The A310 MRTT and a DT-25 drone during the test.


Airbus Defense and Space and its subsidiary, UpNext, have announced that they have finished a successful round of tests using an A310 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) testbed to guide and control DT-25 targeting drones on their own. The tests, which took place at Getafe Air Base in Spain, lasted nearly 12 hours and saw the tanker use autonomous capabilities to direct eight uncrewed aircraft. The tests were a step towards achieving wholly autonomous refueling.

According to Manuel Barriopedro, head of Auto’Mate Demonstrator at Airbus UpNext, the receiver drones were directed to a minimum distance of 150 feet (around 45 meters) from the tanker. The three "technological bricks" upon which Auto'Mate is based—accurate relative navigation, intra-flight communication, and cooperative control algorithms—were all rolled out successfully during the tests. With these features, Airbus was able to find out the exact location, speed, and altitudes of both the tanker and the drones. Control algorithms designed to avoid mid-air collisions made this possible.

The guidance and control test is a big step toward the long-term goal of an "end-to-end demonstration" in which the A310 refuels a DT-25 by itself, validating the manufacturer's concept of autonomous air-to-air refueling (A4R).

A second phase of testing, set to commence before the end of 2023, will involve simulated drones flying virtually in the airspace of the A310, so the tanker's collision avoidance capabilities can be further tested.

María Ángeles Martí, head of Tanker and Derivatives at Airbus Defense and Space, said that Airbus wants to see Auto'Mate technology certified and on the market by "the end of the decade."

The company has worked with the Republic of Singapore Air Force to improve automatic air-to-air refueling (A3R) on A330 MRTT planes. "We will start to upgrade this [A3R] technology for customers in the coming years," added Martí, but said that a decision on whether it will be an option or integrated as a standard feature of the aircraft has yet to be made.

Barriopedro said that the data from the first flight tests needs to be looked at more to determine how accurate and well they fit together.

“We need to analyze all the data that we have gathered from the [first] flight tests, from different cameras, LiDAR [imagery], different types of GPS [data], to assess how precise they are and how well] they have been integrated,” said Barriopedro. “Once we have done that, we will move to the next steps and increase autonomy levels,” he added.

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