EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., Sept 8, 2006 – The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), in a joint effort with NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, performed the first-ever autonomous probe-and-drogue airborne refueling operation August 30, at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
The demonstration was conducted with a NASA F/A-18 configured to operate as an unmanned test bed.
The Autonomous Airborne Refueling Demonstration (AARD) system used GPS-based relative navigation, coupled with an optical tracker, to provide the precise positioning required to put a refueling probe into the center of a 32-inch basket dangling in the air stream behind an airborne tanker.
The tanker was equipped with a small relative navigation pallet, but production refueling equipment was not modified in any way. Pilots were on board the F/A-18 for safety purposes.
Autonomous in-flight refueling is a critical enabler for affordable, persistent, unmanned strike systems.
“This flight is a significant milestone – it demonstrates that autonomous systems can employ the benefits of air-refueling that have proven so valuable to military aviation,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jim McCormick, DARPA program manager.
“We chose to demonstrate the probe and drogue refueling method because it is the most challenging for autonomous systems,” McCormick noted. “The precise station-keeping capability we’ve demonstrated applies equally to the boom and receptacle method used by most Air Force aircraft.”
The same technology also promises to enhance reliability, safety and the range of operating conditions for air refueling manned aircraft.
The flight was the seventh of eight planned for the 15-month AARD proof of concept program.