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Airbus to launch autonomous aerial refuelling trials with unmanned aircraft in 2023

The Auto'Mate unmanned aircraft seen in front of an Airbus A330 at the company's Madrid facility, ahead of trials in early 2023. (Janes/Gareth Jennings)

Airbus Defence and Space (DS) is to begin trials of a new capability enabling its A330-200 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) to aerial refuel an unmanned receiver aircraft autonomously, a company official disclosed on 12 December.

Speaking at the company's annual Trade Media Briefing (TMB) at its Getafe facility in Madrid, Head of Military Air Systems Jean-Price Dumont said that the Autonomous Assets Air-to-Air Refuelling (A4R) and Autonomous Formation Flight (AF2) trials will commence either in the first or second quarter of 2023.

“For our Future Road map of the MRTT, A4R will give the ability to refuel a ‘drone' autonomously. A demonstrator [receiver unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)] has been developed by Airbus UpNext, known as Auto'Mate”, Dumont said.

The A4R capability builds on the recently certified (for daytime use, with night trials soon to begin) automatic air-to-air refuelling (A3R) system. The A3R system requires no additional equipment on the receiver aircraft and is intended to reduce the air-refuelling operator workload, improve safety, and optimise the rate of air-to-air refuelling transfer in operational conditions. The A4R will take this A3R automation and add a fully autonomous dimension to the boom system, with a final end-to-end demonstration due in mid-2024.

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