Airbus UpNext has successfully demonstrated the in-flight autonomous guidance and control of an uncrewed aircraft through the A310 multi-role tanker transporter (MRTT) aircraft.

The announcement was shared by Airbus Defence and Space, the parent company of Airbus UpNext.

This achievement marks the first step in autonomous formation flight and air-to-air refuelling (A4R) capability. The demonstration further marks a key milestone for future air operations representing crewed and uncrewed teaming. It involved integration of Airbus’ Auto’Mate technology with an A310 MRTT flying testbed and on a number of DT-25 target drones that served as receiver aircraft.

Auto’Mate demonstrator can be used for minimising crew fatigue, while simultaneously reducing chances of human error.

The A310 tanker aircraft took-off from Getafe in Spain on 21 March, while the target drones flew from the Arenosillo Test Centre at Huelva, Spain.

After taking off from their respective places, the A310 aircraft took control of the drones from a ground station. This transitioning allowed MRTT to autonomously guide the DT-25 aircraft into the desired in-flight refuelling position.

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The flight test was performed above the waters of the Gulf of Cadiz and lasted for around six hours. It involved successive launch of four receivers that were controlled and commanded with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) and cooperative control algorithms, with no human involvement.

Airbus Defence and Space Military Air Systems head Jean Brice Dumont said: “Even though we are at an early stage, we have achieved this within just one year and are on the right track for crewed-uncrewed teaming and future air force operations where fighters and mission aircraft will fly jointly with drone swarms.”

The next test for Auto’Mate technology is slated to be held by the end of this year. It will focus on the use of AI-based navigation sensors and improving algorithms for autonomous formation flight.

In another development, Airbus has received an order from the Nato Support and Procurement Agency to deliver the tenth A330 MRTT aircraft for the Multinational MRTT Fleet (MMF).

The new order follows an initial memorandum of understanding, signed by the MMF member nations last week.

The MMF Unit has already achieved initial operational capability, with the full operational capability expected in mid-2024.