Airbus claims world-first automatic mid-air refuelling

Airbus Defence and Space has performed what it says is the first ever automatic air-to-air refuelling (A3R) operation for a large aircraft.

While the manoeuvre had previously been undertaken to refuel a fighter jet, on this occasion Airbus’ A310 company development tanker linked up with a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport, also made by Airbus. During the June 20 flight off the coast of Spain, the two tankers performed seven automatic contacts.

To achieve the manoeuvre, the system first uses passive techniques such as image processing to determine the receiver’s refuelling receptacle position. Once engaged, fully automated flight control flies and maintains the boom aligned with the receiver’s receptacle. The telescopic beam inside the boom can be controlled in a range of ways including manually by the Air Refuelling Operator (ARO), a relative distance-keeping mode, or full auto-mode to perform the contact.

“It was extremely impressive to see how accurately the A3R system tracks the receiver,” said David Piatti, the Airbus Test ARO, or “boomer”, on the A310. “It can be very useful to be able to refuel another tanker or transport, for example to extend its deployment range or to avoid taking fuel back to base, but it is also a challenging operation and this system has the potential to reduce workload and the risk involved.”

RAAF Squadron Leader Lawry Benier said the RAAF was assisting Airbus Defence & Space on the development of A3R and other technologies to increase the KC-30A’s battle capabilities.

“It’s very encouraging to come to Spain and see the progress that’s been made with A3R, and be able to witness it first-hand refuelling our KC-30A,” he said.

“Refuelling large receivers is a role RAAF has conducted extensively on operations and exercises, allowing us to extend the reach and responsiveness of our air mobility fleet, as well as keep surveillance aircraft in the air for longer.”



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