Airbus Aims To Demonstrate Autonomous Tanker, Drone Refueling In 2024

AIRBUS execs
Airbus UpNext CEO Sandra Bour Schaeffer, right, and Jean-Brice Dumont, Airbus Defense executive vice president of military aircraft, announced developments in autonomous refueling at the Farnborough International Airshow on July 19.
Credit: Brian Everstine/AW&ST

Airbus wants to demonstrate fully autonomous air-to-air refueling between a tanker and multiple uncrewed receivers in 2024 in a process that builds on the successful certification of the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport’s automatic air-to-air refueling (A3R) system.

Airbus UpNext, the company’s subsidiary focused on development of new capabilities, announced the effort, called Auto’Mate, at the Farnborough International Airshow. Airbus UpNext CEO Sandra Bour Schaeffer says the company will test the technologies in flight in 2023, with a final demonstration in mid-2024. 

Airbus will use an A310 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) as the testbed to refuel DT-25 target drones as receiver aircraft. 

Schaeffer says there are three main “building blocks” to establishing the technology: accurate relative navigation for the receivers to precisely identify the tanker, the automatic refueling process and intraflight communication to link the aircraft so that the tanker can pass orders through a low-latency data link. 

“If we are capable, and we think we will be, to demonstrate this autonomous air-to-air refueling, all of the sudden you’re opening new possibilities, because unmanned refueling becomes a possibility and you can have, in a common fleet, manned and unmanned aircraft to be refueled. And on the manned aircraft we will clearly reduce the workload of the pilot,” Schaeffer says.

Airbus is not the only company pursuing automated refueling, with Boeing demonstrating its uncrewed MQ-25 Stingray passing fuel to the F/A-18, Lockheed Martin F-35 and Northrop Grumman E-2D, though the drone has not connected with an uncrewed receiver. 

The Auto’Mate will heavily rely on technology from the A330 MRTT’s A3R. Also on July 19, Airbus announced that this aircraft is the first to be certified for automatic air-to-air refueling operations. The Spanish National Institute of Aerospace Technology certified the system after a test campaign with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) that included more than 600 automatic connections.

The certification is for daylight operations with the F-16, and the company expects it will soon be certified for night operations and other receivers including the F-15, says Jean-Brice Dumont, executive vice president of military aircraft at Airbus Defense. 

The RSAF is the first air force interested in the capability, and Airbus is looking for additional A330 MRTT operators to sign on. Lockheed Martin says it will have the capability on the LMXT tanker it is offering the U.S. Air Force for the service’s “bridge tanker” KC-Y competition if it wins.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.