The future of air combat: autonomous refueling with Airbus drones.
Airbus A310 MRTT tanker aircraft flies in front of a Eurofighter at the International Aerospace Exhibition (ILA). Photo: Fabian Sommer/dpa (Photo by Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Autonomous technology’s growth portends a promising future for aerial combat. Airbus has proved that its A310 MRTT aircraft can independently steer and control drones in flight, paving the path for unmanned aircraft to refuel themselves.

With the use Auto’Mate technology

UpNext, a subsidiary of Airbus, has created Auto’Mate, a system that employs artificial intelligence and machine learning to enable the autonomous operation of drones. DT-25 drones were steered and maneuvered during two six-hour test flights by an A310 equipped with an aerial refueling system and Auto’Mate technology.

The DT-25 drones that acted as air targets were launched from a test facility in Huelva, Spain, while the A310 took off from Getafe Air Base. The experiments investigated the aircraft’s capability to steer and control drones in flight independently.

A shift toward autonomous replenishment

Although there was no physical touch or fuel exchange during the tests, they laid the groundwork for future improvements in autonomous in-flight refueling. The three cornerstones of Auto’Mate technology are precise relative navigation, intra-flight communication, and cooperative control algorithms.

Using this technology, Airbus intends to lower crew sizes, reduce human error, and provide more efficient operations in the future.

Implementation in the Future Air Combat System

Auto’Mate technology could also be utilized in other development projects, such as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which aims to create improved combat planes operating in a network alongside unmanned aerial vehicles.

A prosperous future

Airbus wants to conduct a second demonstration later this year, concentrating on the use of artificial intelligence-based navigation sensors and enhanced algorithms for autonomous formation flight. The final demonstration, expected in the middle of 2024, will feature an A310 utilizing Auto’Mate technology to refuel a DT-25 drone in flight autonomously.