Northrop Grumman, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA‘s Dryden Flight Research Center have conducted flight demonstrations for a program aimed at creating autonomous aerial refueling between two unmanned high-altitude aircraft.
In another instance, the drones approached each other at a 30-foot difference.
The company and DARPA launched these tests as part of efforts to complete the agency’s Autonomous High-Altitude Refueling Program, said Fred Ricker, vice president and deputy general manager for the aerospace systems advanced programs and technology unit.
Northrop also reported a lead receiver aircraft extended and retracted its aerial refueling hose several times, completing tests to validate associated program hardware and software.
The trail tanker aircraft demonstrated precision control in formation with manual and automated breakaway maneuvers, a safety feature.
Goals of DARPA’s $33 million AHR program include enabling one-week long flights through autonomous fuel transfer between two Global Hawks.
AHR is a follow-on to a 2006 DARPA autonomous aerial refueling demonstration, a joint effort with Dryden that used an F/A-18 Hornet as a surrogate unmanned aircraft to autonomously refuel via a probe and drogue from a 707 tanker.
NASA is also using Global Hawks to research hurricanes, flying them at 60,000-feet altitudes.