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Airbus touts world’s first fully automatic air-to-air refueling

Airbus A3R automatic refueling system
Airbus photo of one of the automated refueling contacts between an Airbus tanker test aircraft and a Portuguese Air Force F-16 fighter jet.

Airbus says it has achieved the first ever fully automatic air-to-air refueling (A3R) operation with a boom system, using a tanker test aircraft and a Portuguese Air Force F-16 fighter.

Carried out earlier in the year over the Atlantic Ocean, the milestone is part of the industrialization phase of A3R systems ahead of its implementation in the A330 MRTT tanker development.

The campaign achieved a total of 45 flight test hours and 120 dry contacts with the A3R system, covering the whole aerial refueling envelope. The certification phase will start in 2021, according to the company.

As explained, the A3R system requires no additional equipment on the receiver aircraft and is intended to reduce air refueling operator workload and optimize the rate of air-to-air refueling transfer in operational conditions. The goal for the A3R system is to develop technologies that will reach fully autonomous capabilities.

Once the system is activated by the operator, the A3R flies the boom automatically and keeps the alignment between the boom tip and the receiver receptacle with an accuracy of a couple of centimeters; the proper alignment and the receiver stability is checked in real-time to keep a safe distance between the boom and the receiver and also to determine the optimum moment to extend the telescopic beam to achieve the connection with the receiver. At this point, the fuel transfer is initiated to fill up the receiver aircraft and once completed and the disconnection is commanded, the boom is cleared away from the receiver by retracting the telescopic beam and flying the boom away to keep a safe separation distance. During this process, the operator simply monitors the operation.

“The achievement of this key milestone for the A3R program highlights the A330 MRTT’s excellent capability roadmap development and once more confirms that our tanker is the world’s reference for present and future refueling operations,” Didier Plantecoste, Airbus head of tanker and derivatives programs, said.