The Next Step in the Automated Tanker Boom

By Robbin Laird

The RAAF was the launch customer for the A330MRTT.

And the Aussies have been from the beginning key drivers of innovation working with Airbus Defence and Space in evolving the capabilities of the global tanker.

Part of Tanker 2.0 is providing new capabilities for the combat fleet to support operations in terms of data, connectivity and enhanced tanking capabilities.

One of those is the automated boom.

During an interview at the Amberley Air Base in the Spring of 2017 with Air Commodore Lennon and the 86th Wing Commander, Group Captain Adam Williams, we discussed the evolution of the KC-30A into Tanker 2.0.

One aspect of that evolution was the coming of the robotic boom.

According to Air Commodore Lennon: “The best way to think about the new boom capability is that it is an automatic boom similar to how autopilot works in the cockpit. The automatic pilot simplifies the pilot load, but the pilot is still there and can override the autopilot in case of need.

“There will always be an operator monitoring what’s going on with the boom, deciding what the boom should do, and when it should do it, but now he can let the boom do all the work of positioning and marrying up with the receiver.”

The KC-30A is a refuellable aircraft so with a fatigue reducing automatic boom, the crew can stay airborne for longer to generate additional operational impact and enhanced sortie generation effects.

“If it can anticipate and react to movements of the receiver aircraft faster than the boom operator can, then you end up with faster contacts.

You also potentially end up with more consistent contacts when the turbulence level increases, in cloud or when night falls.”

During a return visit to RAAF Amberley earlier this year, the new Air Mobility Commander, Air Commodore “K-9” Kourelakos, highlighted the coming of the new capability as follows:

“With a robotic boom, you are increasing your combat capability through enhanced efficiency.

“You can also achieve a reduction in maintenance as you work through ways to efficiently operate the the boom.

“What we are talking about is taking force projection to a new level.

“If you can have our fighters on station-longer and delivering combat effects, because you can tank them more rapidly, that will be a significant gain.”

“We are a small Air Force.

“If you look at the history of small air forces, they win or lose on the first day. You want to be ready for the first day.

And progress has been made since that interview earlier this year.

According to a recent Airbus Defence and Space media release dated July 12, 2108:

Airbus Defence and Space has followed its earlier achievement in demonstrating Automatic Air-to-Air (A3R) refuelling of a fighter with another world-first – the same operation performed with a large receiver aircraft.

In a joint operation with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which is collaborating with Airbus in development of this pioneering technology, Airbus’ A310 company development tanker performed seven automatic contacts with a RAAF KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport, also made by Airbus.

The system requires no additional equipment on the receiver and is intended to reduce refuelling boom operator workload, improve safety, and optimise the rate of air-to-air refuelling (AAR) in operational conditions to maximise aerial superiority. Airbus has begun work towards introducing the system on the current production A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (A330 MRTT).

During initial approach of the receiver, boom control is performed by the tanker’s Air Refuelling Operator (ARO) as usual. Innovative passive techniques such as image processing are then used to determine the receiver’s refuelling receptacle position and when the automated system is activated, a fully automated flight control system flies and maintains the boom aligned with the receiver’s receptacle. The telescopic beam inside the boom can be controlled in a range of ways including: manually by the ARO; a relative distance -keeping mode; or full auto-mode to perform the contact.

In the 20 June flight off the southern Spanish coast, the A310 tanker performed the scheduled seven contacts over a two-hour test period.

David Piatti, who again acted as Airbus Test ARO, or “boomer”, on the A310, said: “It was extremely impressive to see how accurately the A3R system tracks the receiver. It can be very useful to be able to refuel another tanker or transport, for example to extend its deployment range or to avoid taking fuel back to base, but it is also a challenging operation and this system has the potential to reduce workload and the risk involved.”

The trial was conducted in conjunction with Test Pilots and Flight Test Engineers from the RAAF’s Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU).

Squadron Leader Lawry Benier, Executive Officer for ARDU, said the RAAF were assisting Airbus Defence & Space on the development of A3R and other technologies to increase the utility of the KC-30A within a battlespace.

“It’s very encouraging to come to Spain and see the progress that’s been made with A3R, and be able to witness it firsthand refuelling our KC-30A,” Squadron Leader Benier said.

“Refuelling large receivers is a role RAAF has conducted extensively on operations and exercises, allowing us to extend the reach and responsiveness of our air mobility fleet, as well as keep surveillance aircraft in the air for longer.”

The photos show the first automatic contact between the A310 MRTT demonstrator and the KC-30A, and an emulation of what the image processing system “sees”.