The A330 MRTT has added another string to its bow: automatic refueling. Thanks to cooperation between Airbus and the Republic of Singapore Air Force, INTA has been able to deliver the long-awaited certification. This certification allows Airbus to continue its "world firsts" in in-flight refueling and to consider future projects (A4R, Auto'Mate, etc.). It goes without saying that this is also a positive point for the LMXT in the United States, compared to the KC-46A and its defective cameras.
On February 12, 2020, Airbus and Singapore agreed to collaborate on the development of the A330 SMART MRTT for the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). A test campaign was recently conducted with an RSAF A330 SMART MRTT and an F-16C, also owned by the RSAF. Now, as of this July 19, the A330 MRTT is now the first tanker certified for automatic air-to-air refueling (Automatic Air-to-Air Refuelling, A3R). The certification was issued by the Spanish National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA). Automatic refueling increases the safety of the procedure while increasing its efficiency. In addition, the SMART standard allows for improved maintenance of the aircraft.
In a press-release, Airbus Defense and Space's director of military systems adds that the A330 MRTT has already been the first tanker to refuel an aircraft automatically : "The certification of the A3R capability is the result of a journey that began in 2018, with the world's first automated contact with a telescopic boom in a joint operation with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). [...]"
Airbus is not stopping at an A3R capability, however: it requires the operator to monitor the maneuver. The future A4R (Autonomous Assets Air-to-Air Refuelling) capability, currently in development, should allow the operator's role to be completely erased. There is also the Auto'Mate project, which should enable the development of an autonomous formation flight capability (Autonomous Formation Flight, AF2), or the automatic refueling project, but this time from the aircraft being refueled. The first tests for these projects should begin in 2023, with an official demonstration between an A310 and DT-25 drones. These various programs are managed by UpNext, an Airbus subsidiary specializing in advanced technologies.
It goes without saying that this certification and future improvements in in-flight refueling at Airbus are strong arguments for the LMXT (a project between Lockheed Martin and Airbus) against the KC-46A Pegasus. On the other hand, the latter has still not entered 100% active service since its cameras did not detect aircraft in certain situations (more info in this article).
The SMART standard focuses mostly on the A3R but also on an improvement of the internal maintenance support system.
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