Airbus demonstrates automatic AAR

Nigel Pittaway | Melbourne

Airbus Defence and Space announced this week that it has successfully demonstrated Automatic Air to Air Refuelling (A3R) contacts between its A310 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) test-bed and a Portuguese Air Force F-16 fighter. 

The tests were carried out off the Portuguese coast on March 21 in a world first operation which involved six contacts between tanker and fighter, flying at 25,000 feet and at a speed of 270 knots.


“It will certainly reduce workload, especially in degraded weather conditions”


The Airbus A3R system uses a series of 3D cameras and image processing software to precisely determine the location of the receiving aircraft’s refuelling receptacle in space, which then automatically directs the tanker’s boom towards the receptacle. It is designed to reduce Air Refuelling Operator (ARO) workload and improve safety of AAR operations, particularly in bad weather.

“The most important thing was that the system could track the receptacle,” Airbus Test ARO program lead David Piatti said. “It was very satisfying because it worked perfectly and we could perform the contacts with the automation switched on as planned. It will certainly reduce workload, especially in degraded weather conditions.”

Airbus says the system could be installed on current (A330-based) MRTTs as early as 2019 and

Australia is also likely to adopt the system, after signing a joint development agreement recently.

The A3R capability is one of the technologies included in the Smart Tanker program, which was announced by Airbus Defence and Space head of military aircraft, Fernando Alonso at the Avalon Air Show in March. Other technologies include the development of the MRTT as a Command and Control (C2) node; ‘Big Data’, which expands the capability of the A330’s existing Central Maintenance Computer to include mission systems data capture; and ‘Space Data Highway’, which is the ability to send and receive greater amounts of data, using broadband laser communications.

At Avalon, Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies announced the signing of a research agreement between the RAAF and Airbus to further develop the MRTT-based KC-30A’s capabilities, the first milestone of which will be the joint development of the A3R capability.

“The Australians have been instrumental in encouraging us to develop the smart tanker,” Alonso said. “Air Commodore Phil Tammen (Director General Airlift & Tanker Systems, CASG) has been instrumental in helping my team to move forward on A3R.”

“The research agreement we’ve signed is for the life of the tanker; it’s part of our long-term relationship with Airbus,” AIRCDRE Tammen said. “The project that we have actually now commissioned and are in contract for, is for the collaborative support in development of A3R. Airbus will continue to research (the) other activities, but the RAAF approaches A3R as probably our highest priority in the short term.”

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