The US Air Force may demonstrate a small ground robot capable of refuelling aeroplanes unassisted next year, according to reports.
Flight International says that the US Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate is developing the robot. Initially it will refuel the much-maligned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (aka Lightning II) due to go into service with many Western-aligned air forces - including three of the four US ones - in coming years. However the droid will also be able to service other aircraft should it reach widespread service.
Apparently the machine has a "vision based guidance system" which enables it to find the filling point, open the covers and lock on a multi-jointed hose pantograph.
Flight quotes an air force lab statement:
Future advances based on the results of the [robot] will allow refuelling crews to operate free of [protective] gear in a closed environment and still be protected from chemical-biological risks.
Apart from the chemical/biological/radiological environments argument, it seems that the US air force thinks it may achieve savings in man-hours as well.
That's all very well: but if the planned Dutch petrol-station robot is a danger to humanity - and that has plainly been established beyond question - how much more of a menace is a fearsome machine with access to huge volumes of jet fuel, allowed to meddle unsupervised with combat planes laden with tons of hugely powerful munitions?
One need hardly flag up the point that many of the aircraft nowadays are robots too. Indeed, there will soon also be robots able to refuel each other in the air, with no need ever to land except perhaps to raid humanity's energy resources.
Truly, these are the end times. The Flight report is here. ®