Air Refueling Goes Drones

Air Refueling Goes Drones

After years of covering the miasma of the airborne tanker’s progress, it’s refreshing to be granted a fresh angle on aerial refueling.

Earlier this month, DARPA made a little-noticed announcement that it was awarding Northrop Grumman a $33 million contract to build something being called KQ-X, which “will demonstrate autonomous aerial refueling between two unmanned NASA Global Hawk aircraft.” The latest wrinkle is that Northrop has picked Cobham, one of the few companies with great expertise in building refueling equipment, a Cobham press release says, to provide a hose and drogue refueling system, plus engineering support and advice.

Northrop did not really exaggerate in its release about the program when Carl Johnson, VP for advanced concepts, said the refueling of one UAV by another would be “a historic milestone.”

Northrop said the refueling will also Not only will the aerial refueling will occur at a much higher altitude than manned aircraft and it will be “the first time” that high altitude UAVs “have flown in formation.”

Pilots from NASA, NOAA, and Northrop Grumman will fly the Global Hawks from the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

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UAVs flying in formation would be a milestone.

Given the limited fuel capacity of a UAV (1 versus 1 instead of 1 KC taker versus many combat aircraft), why is it cost effective to use a UAV to refuel another UAV? It’s not? Just because you can do it, doesn’t you should. So why not just terminate the program and save the $33 million on this goony bird?

Because once you demonstrate that you are able to have the UAV’s fly in formation and successfully refuel one another, you can design an airframe which can refuel multiple aircraft while building upon the successful system that you have already established.

The $33 mil is to develop the tools. The next step would be develop a new airframe around the tools.

Good Morning Folks,

This has bee out for awhile now. The only question is why are we even discussing the $29.55-$40 billion tanker deal?

To Taxpayer, this is only meant to be a demonstration of the KQ-X concept. The production tankers would be large as or even larger the the tankers in the bid. The huge advantage is that the unmanned refueler could stay up much longer then a manned aircraft and fewer aircraft would be needed.

By the way unmanned autonomous refueling has already been done between manned aircraft. It’s been so successful that the software is now being installed into all US military aircraft that are either refuelers or capable of being in air refueled.

Byron Skinner

Good points. So, we should probably cut the Air Force refueling tanker requirement by about one-third as we substitute UAVs for manned aircraft!

they refueled acft with blimps should not be much more dificulte. sounds very good.

I taught our Global Hawk was powered by nuclear energy. Have we tried solar or ionic energy? The Swiss have tried to test a solar powered plane and was successful. The solar, ionic, bio-fuel and nuclear energy technology can be usefull on our Global Hawk and KQ-X long and lenghty flights.

Nuclear energy? Do you mean a fission reactor? That would be a tad difficult, I think. As for refueling with blimps, wouldn’t relative speed be an issue? What is the max speed of an air ship, and the minimum speed of a fighter? Because I do not know how it could work if the fighter could not slow down to the speed of an airship.

They have many variant that uses different fuel. One is nuclear. This type might be using a synthetic fuel.–02/ns

All the global hawks have traditional jet engines. Even our smallest fission reactor would be way too large to fit in the global hawk’s airframe.

If they use solar power during the day, will they use moon power at nite ?

Taxpayer2, you have it right. Nothing new springs from thin air. You have to develop and test, first.

Byron, you make good points, but this is still new tech and not ready for operational deployment.

Taxpayer, the initial $35 bil (or whatever) is the first round. If this technology progresses quickly, the AF might trim future options, but the need for the initial round of manned tankers is current, real, and urgent.

DME, are you talking about the parasite fighters from the 30’s? Yeah. That’s why we have tankers, now.

Roland, Nuclear? Ionic? Really? We tried nuke back in the 50’s for long range bombers, as an experimental program. Proved to be pretty difficult, and then there was the worry about what if a flying reactor crashes in your neighborhood? The article you link does not support the idea that we “have many variants that uses different fuel.” It’s about a feasability study from 2003 that, judging by recent news, went nowhere.

Well it is about time!

Some of us thought this was inevitable. Since the inflight refudling operator can be in a remote station, on the flight deck as briefed in 10 years ago, the operator can also be in Phoenix.

Jim Harris, USAF Ret
KC-135 Boomer

We must start somewhere, we didnt get to the F-22 without MANY failed attempts at man flight. We will not get to the perfect UAV or UCAV that can do mid-air refueling; heck even when a human is flying the aircraft in flight the task is very dangerous and complicated, taking the human out of the cockpit and into a remote location makes it that much more difficult. We must always strive to push our technology to stay ahead of our enemies, we must adapt ourselves to the future changes of war not after the changes have already happened.

i see this as potentially great technological development both for military and civilian use. It won’t be too far down the road before UAVs refuel private airline planes, or heck, perhaps passengers will start flying on private UAVs. Obviously there is a trust barrier there that will be a problem initially, but as we slowly adapt to technological advances, we’ve seen how society has adjusted.

the $35 billion is a drop in the bucket worth of research in comparison to the massive amounts of money spent elsewhere in this government. If it meant us spending $35 billion in order to prevent the death of even one of our soldiers, sailors, or airmen every year, it would be worth it to me.

This is ridiculous. First, anyone who knows anything about refueling knows that either a boom operator steers the fuel exchanger toward the aircraft or the use of a close aboard basket is utilized. And it turns a refueling drone into a flying gas bomb. Having 2 remote jockey’s trying to manueuver each others drone to sync up is silly.. But not, if you want to add another $10 Billion to work out kinks. If the government weren’t so spooky about letting out contracts, it probably could be done at 2/3 the taxpayer dollar spent adapting existing systems. Further, I like having a Capt. Sullenburger (ditched in Hudson River, NYC) , up front. Having A UAV capt. just give up on electronic problem means your going along for the ride.

this could be an interesting prospect. mind you this is just to test the concept of unmanned refueling. once it is proved then they can make something like the KC-135.

Bat, ‘autonomous’ doesn’t mean remote jockeys especially w/ GH’s; it means the two drones using interwoven technology (laser, chip scale automic clocks, etc.) connect and refuel w/o human input.
Great points made by many…end state is a cheaper means to ensure battlespace awareness w/o risking people or being limited by their endurance. Current trend is more UAS presence w/ autonomous redundancies that free manpower to be forward in the decision making fighting positions. Regarding nukes…we can’t overcome weight and safety issues; regarding solar…doesn’t generate the power requirements needed (Swiss experiment is extremely light weight).

Technology does not win wars. Just because you can, does not mean that you should. Humans fight wars, win wars and have to make decisions in those wars. The further we push the operator away from the fight, the less we will understand what the fight is all about, and the best course of action.

And Tankers are limited by gas as much as by people, so the savings is neglible. Just like the UAVs in the fight right now. There are reasons to have them, but it is not to save money. And look at the high crash rate of UAVs compared to regular aircraft. It will definitely not save money in the short term.

I was a boom on the steam jet (KC-135 A) back in the mid to late 80’s, and being an air crew member I was able to see the shuttle launch in Florida, see a play in England, snow skii in Colorado, run with the bulls in Laejez (sp?), in the Azores… I was able to experience the world. Yes, this is much safer but I feel bad for those future crew members who will miss out when this becomes the standard.

Sure, at least to read the instruction manual!

Refueling from blimps was done long ago with biplanes: much slower minimum speed.

Adolf Coors helped develop a nuclear engine for a nuclear powered cruise missile. Bits of the ceramic would flake off and leave a trail of radioactive waste. It was tested by sucking the air out of a salt dome and installing the engine in a pipe leading from the air to the salt dome, so the exhaust products would be trapped in the salt dome. Pluto cruise missile, If i remember correctly.


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