Airbus Wins Autonomous Refueling Approval; Boeing Reveals Demo

The A330 MRTT
The A330 MRTT is the first tanker certified to conduct autonomous air-to-air refueling missions.
Credit: Airbus

In the long-standing tanker competition between Airbus and Boeing, one company will not concede the other the spotlight for even a couple of hours.

Airbus at the Farnborough International Airshow announced that its autonomous air-to-air refueling effort (A3R) with the Republic of Singapore Air Force on the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) has received official government approval—the first time an automated refueling capability has been certified, allowing refueling without a boom operator.

  • Spain certifies system developed with Singaporean MRTT
  • First night operations approval expected soon

Spain’s National Institute of Aerospace Technology recently signed off on the A3R’s capability to refuel the F-16 during daylight. The certification follows more than 600 touches between the A330 MRTT and receiver aircraft since the overall program started in 2018 with the first automated contact during operations with the Royal Australian Air Force.

Airbus expects the A3R system to be certified to refuel the F-15 for night operations soon, says Jean-Brice Dumont, head of military air systems at Airbus Defense and Space. While the A3R capability is first being developed for Singapore, Airbus is soliciting interest from other operators of the A330. That includes the U.S., if its Air Force proceeds with a competition for a KC-Y tanker. At Farnborough, Lockheed Martin, which plans to partner with Airbus, said that if the team wins the contract, it would integrate the A3R system onto the modified A330 MRTT it has dubbed the LMXT. The A3R system does not require any additional equipment on a receiving aircraft, with new computers and software changes to be installed on the tanker itself.

Just hours later, Boeing would not let Airbus keep the headlines. In a direct response to the Airbus press conference, Boeing rushed out a statement disclosing for the first time that its KC-46 also has demonstrated autonomous boom aerial refueling during flight tests. Boeing has developed this capability itself, independent of any U.S. Air Force requirements, though the service has stated that it will want the capability in the future.

“We continue to mature the technology, concept of operations and the pathway to robust certification with the FAA and relevant regulators,” Boeing said in a statement. “As we do so, we will continue to work with our customers to determine whether, when and how to integrate the autonomous capability to best support their mission.”

The company did not reveal any details about the tests, including the specific receivers involved or even if it was conducted recently. Since the development is being done in-house, the Air Force was not made aware of the announcement beforehand and said it did not have anything to add.

Autonomous refueling is not yet a requirement for the KC-46, and though the service has said it will be a key part of its KC-Y “bridge tanker” if it proceeds to a formal competition, those requirements are not yet set. A request for information for the KC-Y calls for responding companies to outline their plans for autonomous refueling.

Mike Hafer, Boeing’s senior manager of KC-46 business development, said in a June briefing that the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command has given the company directives about where it is heading with tankers: enhanced communications, increased survivability and, most important, autonomy. More details on Boeing’s autonomous effort would come soon, Hafer said then. Boeing officials say they will reveal more about the tests after the Farnborough air show.

“We don’t get out in front of our customer. We don’t tell our customer what’s best for them,” he said, adding that Boeing has been “working robustly” on autonomous refueling.

Airbus is also starting its next phase in automation, with its UpNext subsidiary launching “Auto’Mate”—a demonstrator effort to refuel drones with the autonomous tanker system. UpNext CEO Sandra Bour Schaeffer said at Farnborough that the company will test the technologies in flight in 2023, with a final demonstration planned for mid-2024. Airbus will use an A310 MRTT as the testbed, refueling multipole DT-25 target drones.

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

Schaeffer adds: “To demonstrate this autonomous air-to-air refueling, all of a sudden you’re opening new possibilities.”

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.


1 Comment
Conceding and competition are antithetical.