The latest version of unmanned naval aerial combat vehicles achieved another first on Wednesday when it conducted its first aerial refueling test, the Navy announced.
While flying off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, the X-47B, an unmanned vehicle designed to eventually operate off naval aircraft carriers, successfully connected to an Omega K-707 refueling tanker and received more than 4,000 pounds of fuel, the Navy said in a press release.
“What we accomplished today demonstrates a significant, groundbreaking step forward for the Navy,” Capt. Beau Duarte, the manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program, said in the release. “The ability to autonomously transfer and receive fuel in flight will increase the range and flexibility of future unmanned aircraft platforms, ultimately extending carrier power projection.”
This is the latest in a series of firsts for the remotely piloted plane that the Navy hopes to develop into a battle-ready aircraft that can operate safely alongside its manned counterparts aboard aircraft carriers.
In 2013, an X-47B became the first unmanned aircraft to take off and land from an aircraft carrier, although all other aircraft were removed from the deck before the test flight. Last year, it became the first such aircraft to take off and land alongside a manned plane, an F/A-18 Hornet on the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
It was not known going into the test whether the aircraft would be able to effectively maneuver its probe used to take in fuel with the tanker’s drogue, also called the basket, in the same way a pilot would be able to position their aircraft in a refueling operation.
“In manned platforms, aerial refueling is a challenging maneuver because of the precision required by the pilot to engage the basket,” Duarte said. “Adding an autonomous functionality creates another layer of complexity.”
A part of the Navy’s Unmanned-Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, the X-47B will eventually be developed into follow on aircraft the Navy hopes to deploy into operation in 2020 or beyond.