Airbus Achieves Inflight Autonomous Guidance and Control of a Drone Using an A310 MRTT
Airbus Defence and Space, and their wholly-owned subsidiary, Airbus UpNext, has achieved the autonomous guidance and control of a drone using an A310 MRTT. This is the first step to Autonomous Formation Flight and Autonomous Air-to-Air refueling.
On Tuesday (March 28, 2023), Airbus Defence and Space announced that they have successfully achieved inflight autonomous guidance and control of a drown using an A310MRTT. The test was the first step towards achieving Autonomous Flight Formation and Autonomous Air-to-Air (A4R) refueling. The technologies, developed in partnership with Airbus’ wholly-owned subsidiary, Airbus UpNext, demonstrate a substantial breakthrough for future aerial missions using manned and unmanned assets. Known as Auto’Mate, the technologies were integrated into an Airbus A310 MRTT flying testbed, which took flight from Getafe, Spain and March 21, 2023, along with several DT-25 target drones, which acted as receiver aircraft, flying from Arenosillo Test Centre (CEDEA) at Huelva, Spain.
In Tuesday’s announcement, Airbus Defence and Space’s Head of Military Air Systems, Jean Brice Dumont, said,
“The success of this first flight-test campaign paves the way for developing autonomous and unmanned air-to-air refuelling technologies. Even though we are at an early stage, we have achieved this within just one year and are on the right track for manned-unmanned teaming and future air force operations where fighters and mission aircraft will fly jointly with drone swarms.”
During the milestone test flight, once the aircraft were over the Gulf of Cadiz, control of the drone was transitioned from a ground station to the A310 MRTT, autonomously guiding the DT-25 to the inflight refueling position. As part of the nearly six hour test flight, the four successfully launched receivers were sequentially controlled and commanded using artificial intelligence and cooperative control algorithms, without human interaction. The receivers were controlled and guided until a minimum distance of 150 feet (around 45 meters) from the A310 MRTT.
Auto’Mate demonstrator technologies focus on three pillars, namely Accurate Relative Navigation, Intra-Flight Communication, and Cooperative Control Algorithms. Accurate Relative Navigation is designed to precisely determine the relative position, speed and attitudes between the tanker and receiver, while the Intra-Flight Communication between the platforms allows the exchange of information among the different assets, thereby increasing autonomy of the ’system of systems.’ The Cooperative Control Algorithms provide guidance, coordination, consensus and collision avoidance functionalities to both the tanker and receiver(s).
Highlights From Airbus' Successful Autonomous Guidance and Control of a Drone From an A310 MRTT - Courtesy Airbus
The pioneering technologies have been developed by a European team from Spain, Germany and France, and will continue to increase the capability gap among competitors. The technologies will also be used in other key projects, such as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS). Towards the end of 2023, the team will conduct a second test campaign, which will explore the use of navigation sensors based on AI and enhanced algorithms for autonomous formation flight. Additionally, there will be two simulated drones flying in the vicinity of the A310 MRTT to demonstrate multi-receiver autonomous operations, as well as collision avoidance algorithms.