Robotic aerial refueling nears

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EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE (CNS) – A team attempting to demonstrate the first aerial refueling between two unmanned high-altitude aircraft has moved one step closer to robotic aerial refueling, Northrop Grumman officials announced today.

The flights involved two NASA Global Hawk drone — one configured as a tanker and the other as a receiver — from  Edwards Air Force Base between January 11 and May 30.

Two drones successfully flew for the first time in close formation – as close as 30 feet. During the close-formation flights, the aircraft rendezvoused and flew for more than two hours under autonomous formation control, the majority of the time within one wingspan of each other.

The $33 million Autonomous High Altitude Refueling (AHR) program aims to demonstrate autonomous fuel transfer between two Global Hawks, enabling flights of up to one week long. The project is administered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Northrop Grumman Corporation, DARPA and NASA Dryden Flight Research Center were involved in the flight demonstrations.

AHR is a follow-on to a 2006 DARPA Autonomous Aerial Refueling Demonstration, a joint effort with NASA Dryden that used an F/A-18 Hornet as a surrogate unmanned aircraft to refuel autonomously via a probe and drogue from a 707 tanker.

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