Airbus’ A330 MRTT Certified For Daylight Automatic In-Flight Refueling

Airbus recently announced at the Farnborough Air Show that its A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) has become the first tanker aircraft anywhere in the world to be certified for daylight automatic air-to-air refueling (A3R) boom operations.

The certification was awarded by the Spanish National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA), following a successful test campaign by Airbus and the Republic of Singapore Air Force. The RSAF supplied its MRTTs for the campaign, as well as F-16s that served as receiver aircraft during testing.

Airbus claims that the automatic A3R system requires no additional equipment on receiver aircraft, adding to benefits including reduced workload on boom operators, improved safety and optimized aircraft refueling rates. Additionally, the company says that the test campaign also developed enhanced maintenance capabilities for the MRTT, allowing faster resolution of ground tasks and maximizing efficiencies in spare parts use.

“The certification of the A3R capability is the result of a successful journey that started in 2018 with the world’s first automated contact with a boom system in a joint operation with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Since then, we’ve achieved more aeronautical ‘world firsts’ thanks to the support of our customers, especially with the key participation of our partner the RSAF, a launch customer and the first operator to benefit from this game-changing capability. The A330 MRTT continues to increase its technological advantage with superior air refuelling capabilities,” said Jean-Brice Dumont, Head of Military Air Systems at Airbus Defence and Space.

The boom operator’s view of the RSAF A330 MRTT refueling another RSAF A330 MRTT using automatic air-to-air refueling (Airbus)

Alongside announcing the certification, Airbus revealed that its subsidiary Airbus UpNext has launched work on Auto’Mate, a demonstrator that will develop, adapt, mature, integrate and evaluate technologies enabling Autonomous Assets Air-to-Air Refuelling (A4R) and Autonomous Formation Flight (AF2) operations. Auto’Mate development will focus on automating refueling on receiver aircraft, with technologies developed to do so being tested on the Auto’Mate demonstrator.

Airbus UpNext plans for flight testing of Auto’Mate demonstrators to start in 2023, with a final end-to-end demonstration in mid-2024. Dornier DT-25 target drones will be modified into the demonstrator receiver aircraft for both tests, while an A310 will serve as the tests’ Tanker Refuelling Flight Test Bed. Development of Auto’Mate will be carried out in Spain by Airbus Defence’s operations there, with Airbus saying that technologies developed for the demonstrator will: 

“enable a disruptive step forward in the autonomy level of current Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) operations, to reduce crew fatigue and training costs, improve safety and efficiency, and pioneer Unmanned Air-to-Air Refuelling operations (including Unmanned-to-Unmanned AAR operations), a highly demanded capability for future defence scenarios.”