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The autonomous guidance and control of several DT-25 target drones in flight from an A310 MRTT tanker aircraft has been successfully carried out by Airbus Defence and Space together with its subsidiary Airbus UpNext, Airbus announced on 28 March 2023.

According to Airbus, the technologies used are a first step towards autonomous formation flights as well as autonomous aerial refuelling and represent a significant breakthrough for future air operations involving both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The technologies employed, known collectively as Auto’Mate, were integrated onto an A310 MRTT test aircraft as well as onto several DT-25 target drones acting as receiver aircraft. While the A310 MRTT took off from Getafe in Spain, the drones flew from the Arenosillo Test Centre (CEDEA) in Huelva, Spain, to the test zone over the Gulf of Cadiz. Once there, control of the drones was transferred from a ground station to the A310 MRTT, which autonomously guided the DT-25s to the in-flight refuelling position.

An Airbus A310 MRTT with a DT-25 target drone simulating an autonomous aerial refuelling operation. (Photo: Airbus)

During the flight test, which lasted almost six hours, the four receivers, which were launched one after the other, were controlled and commanded one after the other without human interaction, according to Airbus, thanks to artificial intelligence and co-operative control algorithms. The different receivers were controlled and guided to a minimum distance of 150 ft (about 45 m) from the A310 MRTT.

According to Airbus, the advanced ‘Made in Europe’ solutions can reduce crew fatigue and the risk of human error, minimise crew training costs and enable more efficient operations. The technologies, developed by a Spanish-German-French team, can be reused in important technology projects such as the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programme.

Airbus has announced a second campaign for the end of 2023 to test the use of navigation sensors based on artificial intelligence and improved algorithms for autonomous formation flight. In addition, two simulated drones will fly near the A310 MRTT to demonstrate autonomous operation with multiple receivers and collision avoidance algorithms.

Gerhard Heiming