Flying robots are now able to do many tasks which formerly required assistance from a human pilot. They can land, take off, copy aerobatic manoeuvres and dock a manned jet to another one for air-to-air refuelling - hands off.
Now there are plans to take the latter capability to the next level. Unlike previous pilotware refueling trials - which saw automatic hookup of two manned planes (though without significant input from the crews) - two uninhabited aircraft will now mate with one another in flight.
The upcoming aerial plugging-in news comes from Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, which says that aerotech group Cobham will carry out the test flight above Arizona's Yuma Proving Ground "within the next month".
The two six-foot airdroids concerned will apparently use the more common probe-and-drogue refueling system favoured by the US Navy and most NATO nations, rather than the boom method employed by the US Air Force. Under probe-and-drogue, the tanker flies steadily along, trailing a basket-like socket on the end of a fuel line. The aircraft wishing to take fuel then flies its probe into the basket.
This procedure is traditionally said by human pilots as being rather like "taking a running fuck at a rolling doughnut". Cobham subsidiary Sargent Fletcher says that its "powered weapon" retractable probe-o-bots are quite capable of this. They will steer themselves in on final approach by tracking a glowing infrared ring on the offered receptacle.
The ring-sniffing detector/autopilot systems to be employed on the powered-weapon probe droids are made by Texas-based StarVision Inc. The system has already been tested using a fixed ring and a probe mounted on a small powered-wheelchair-esque ground robot. A quietly splendid corporate vid showing the crawling, wobble-probed bot-molester in action is available here. There is also a concept vid of the airborne version in action here.
Successful testing will open up prospects for autonomous skydroids to carry out very long duration missions, sustained by similarly unmanned, unpiloted refuelling tankers. Endurance will be limited only by maintenance requirements - or by eventual mechanical failures if these were ignored due to operational imperatives. ®