Defense contractor Northrop Grumman, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and NASA Dryden Flight Research Center reported on October 8 that they are moving closer to the day when drones can stay airborne indefinitely, refueled by other unmanned aerial vehicles without human assistance.
The test flights conducted between January 11 and May 30 involved the use of two Global Hawk drones — “one configured as a tanker and the other as a receiver.” The experiments were conducted at Edwards Air Force Base, California and reportedly resulted in the achieving of many milestones:
The lead receiver aircraft extended and retracted its aerial refueling hose several times, completing all planned tests to validate the associated program hardware and software.
The trail tanker aircraft successfully demonstrated precision control in formation with manual and automated “breakaway” maneuvers — important safety features and criteria of the test program.
Two Global Hawk unmanned aircraft successfully flew for the first time in close formation — as close as 30 feet.
During the close-formation flight, the aircraft rendezvoused and flew for more than 2.5 hours under autonomous formation control, with the majority of the time within 100 ft (or one wingspan) of each other.
“The technical developments that enabled these two high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned Global Hawks in close formation is an outstanding accomplishment for the AHR [Autonomous High-altitude Refueling] program,” said Fred Ricker, vice president and deputy general manager for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems’ Advanced Programs & Technology. “Coupled with the advanced design and technical implementation of aerial refueling systems on board both aircraft, the demonstration has truly brought a concept to life, which has the potential to change the operations for unmanned aircraft utility and enable mission flexibility never before realized.”
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Photo: Northrop Grumman press release