Navy completes first-ever aerial refueling of drone

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

The US Navy’s unmanned X-47B aircraft became the first drone to demonstrate aerial refueling capabilities earlier this week when it successfully plugged its in-flight refueling (IFR) probe into the hose of an Omega Air tanker off the coast of Maryland.

According to various media reports, one of the two Northrop Grumman-made unmanned carrier air vehicles (UCAS-D) in the X-47B program paired with an Omega Air KC-707 air tanker and successfully demonstrated aerial refueling capabilities for the first time.

Meeting the final X-47B mission objective

The “Salty Dog 502” UAV used optical sensors and a camera to monitor its approach to the air tanker to 20 feet, then plugged its refueling probe into the Omega Air KC-707’s hose, according to the Daily Mail. It marked the first-ever midair refueling of an unmanned aircraft.

Salty Dog 502 is one of two Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicle demonstrators (UCAS-D) on the X-47B program, the UK news organization added. The drones are roughly the same size as an F/A-18 Super Hornet, have a 62-foot wingspan, and weigh approximately 44,000 pounds. The goal of the refueling demonstration was to transfer 3,000 pounds of fuel in just five minutes.

Captain Beau Duarte, program manager of the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation, explained that in-flight refueling was the last hurdle for the UCAS-D drones to overcome. He added that, on the heels of this successful test, they had “met all of the program’s mission objectives.”

Using the technology to develop future Navy drones

Unfortunately, as Engadget points out, the successful test will also likely spell the end of the X-47B program, which to date has only completed 20 percent of its potential flight hours. Both the Salty Dog 502 and its sister aircraft are likely on their way to museums, the website noted.

The good news is that the technology they tested will live on as part of the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, including autonomous carrier landings completed two years ago. The Daily Mail reports that the Navy hopes that the X-47B’s successors, the UCLASS drones, will be capable of performing 24-7 patrols.


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