Airbus Defence and Space has demonstrated its automatic air-to-air refuelling (A3R) capability to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), using a large receiver aircraft for the first time.

During a two-hour trial flight conducted off the coast of southern Spain, Airbus’ A310 tanker testbed used its A3R system to carry out seven automatic contacts with a RAAF 33SQN KC-30A multi-role tanker transport.

The advanced A3R system guides the boom to autonomously connect with the refuelling receptacle of the receiver aircraft.

Airbus A310 test air refuelling operator David Piatti said: “It was extremely impressive to see how accurately the A3R system tracks the receiver.

“When the A3R system is activated, a fully automated flight control system flies and maintains the boom aligned with the receiver aircraft’s receptacle.”

“It can be very useful to be able to refuel another tanker or transport, for example to extend its deployment range or to avoid taking fuel back to base, but it is also a challenging operation and this system has the potential to reduce workload and the risk involved.”

During the receiver’s initial approach, boom control is carried out by the tanker aircraft’s air refuelling operator (ARO). New passive techniques such as image processing are then used to determine the receiver’s refuelling receptacle position.

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When the A3R system is activated, a fully automated flight control system flies and maintains the boom aligned with the receiver aircraft’s receptacle.

The telescopic beam inside the boom can be controlled either manually by the ARO or by using a relative distance-keeping mode or full auto-mode to perform the contact.

The new process is expected to reduce refuelling boom operator workload, enhance safety and optimise the rate of air-to-air refuelling in operational conditions.

Airbus carried out the test with pilots and flight test engineers from the RAAF’s Aircraft Research and Development Unit.