MILAN — Airbus Defence and Space, in cooperation with the company’s subsidiary UpNext, said it successfully demonstrated autonomous guidance and control of a Do-DT25 target drone using an A310 aircraft during test flights in Spain.
On March 21, UpNext performed its first flight-test campaign toward the development of autonomous and uncrewed air-to-air refueling technologies as part of its Auto’Mate project.
The A310 Multi-Role Tanker Transport test bed took off at the company’s site in Getafe while four DT25 multipurpose target drones, acting as receiver aircraft, were launched back to back from the Arenosillo Test Centre in Huelva.
Once over the waters of the Gulf of Cadiz, the control of the unmanned aircraft passed over from a ground station to the tanker, which autonomously guided it to an in-flight refueling position.
“The first flight test lasted about six hours, where a total of four launched receivers were sequentially controlled and commanded via artificial intelligence and cooperative control without human interaction,” Borja García de Sola, external communications manager at Airbus Defence and Space, told reporters. “The different receivers were then controlled until they were at a minimum recorded distance of 150 feet from the A310.”
A second test flight under the same concept, with four DT25 drones and an A310 tanker, also took place on March 23. Together, the systems flew about 12 hours using eight unmanned aircraft.
Both types of aircraft were integrated with Auto’Mate demonstrator technologies including cameras, light detection and ranging — otherwise known as LiDAR — and high-precision GPS to monitor the position, speed and altitudes between them; intra-flight communication systems; and cooperative control algorithms to provide coordination and consensus.
During the briefing, company officials revealed that a second campaign will take place at the end of 2023, with trial flights carried out at the same location.
While in the first push, the company controlled the receivers in two different configurations and autonomously guided them to different positions with diverse navigation sources, the second will focus on more in-depth testing of AI for navigation and autonomous flight.
In addition, the latter will include two simulated drones flying in the proximity of the tanker aircraft to demonstrate multi-receiver autonomous operations and collision-avoidance algorithms, García de Sola explained.
These experiments are paving the way toward achieving what the company refers to as autonomous assets air-to-air refueling, defined as the ability to independently transfer and receive fuel midair. That so-called A4R system allows for the refueling of several aircraft simultaneously and at a faster rate, reduces the size of tanker crew, and enables extended-range missions for the drones.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.