Northrop Grumman Planning First UAV-to-UAV Aerial Refueling

7/1/10Follow @bvbigelow

At Northrop Grumman’s unmanned systems development center in suburban San Diego, some folks are describing a $33 million contract that was announced today as “DARPA hard.”

DARPA is an acronym for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the two-year contract awarded to Northrop Grumman calls for demonstrating the feasibility of using one high-altitude unmanned Global Hawk aircraft to refuel another. The UAV-to-UAV in-flight refueling is to be completely autonomous, with the robotic aircraft using GPS navigation and optical tracking systems to approach, link up, and complete the refueling procedure. If successful, the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) air-to-air refueling will mark a historic milestone—for both aviation and robotics.

UAV-UAV aerial refueling (photo illustration)

UAV-UAV aerial refueling (photo illustration)

While mid-air refueling has been done with piloted aircraft since 1923, it remains a tricky and hazardous maneuver that requires extensive pilot training. In the case of two robotic aircraft, both UAVs must automatically adjust to turbulence and other environmental uncertainties while maneuvering in the thin air of high altitude (the Global Hawk’s cruising altitude is 65,000 feet).

“So this one definitely fits” the category of DARPA hard, says Mark Gamache, the San Diego-based director of advanced concepts for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. In a telephone interview, Gamache tells me DARPA hard “means they only like to work on projects that nobody else would do.”

The Global Hawk was itself the product of DARPA-funded development during the 1990s, with the first seven aircraft built in … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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