No Surprise: Bots Outfly Humans When Refueling

Posted Aug 21, 2007 10:33 AM

By Evan Ackerman

DARPA has completed a program of testing automated docking software to show that unmanned aircraft are capable of autonomous in-flight refueling. The tests were run in a NASA F/A-18 (I know, that's a B-2 above, but I liked the picture) with a safety pilot in the back seat. What's really remarkable isn't the fact that this sort of automated precision flying is possible, it's that (during this trial, anyway) it was spectacularly successful. The system was capable of autonomous approach and docking with a tanker from up to 2 miles behind, 1000 feet below, and 30 degrees off heading. The best technique tested was 100% (that's 100%) effective, and the system proved itself to be able to make contact in turns, something human pilots generally don't try to do. Additionally, the system was able to follow the refueling drogue in turbulence, not deviating more than 4 inches from center even during 3 feet of movement of the drogue. In the words of one NASA test pilot: it's "better than a skilled pilot."

[ DARPA Program Completion Announcement (PDF) ] VIA [ The Register ]