Future of air refueling: USAF tests autonomous systems

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MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- With a vision to redefine air refueling, Air Mobility Command is partnering with an innovative aviation technology startup to test cutting-edge autonomous systems that could revolutionize military aviation.

Exploring how autonomous systems can enhance aircrew efficiency and reduce workload, researchers took flight on the KC-135 Stratotanker May 14-15, 2024, at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA).

“Our job is not to replace pilots, but to make their job safer,” said a spokesperson from the technology company, “Our whole goal is to develop technology that can be operated as safe or safer than current aircraft systems.”

Beyond flying with members of the 6th Air Refueling Wing, team members conducted in-depth interviews with aircrew members to gain insight into their experiences and areas for potential automation along with conducting audio and video recordings of their processes throughout the rest of the week. The crew also participated in simulator sessions to observe and evaluate current operations, and assess the feasibility of reducing crew numbers through automation.

“We’re trying to identify the pinch points where our technology can help—what requires a lot of time, attention, and presents hazards,” said the spokesperson.

Pilots participating in this initiative have shared their enthusiasm and expectations for the potential improvements.

“The efforts of this cooperation would be game changing in time-crunched and high-stressed environments when pilots’ attention must be on flying the aircraft first,” said Maj. Kristy Ciampa, 50th Air Refueling Squadron pilot. “If we can augment the flying, we can increase our crew’s overall capability, situational awareness, and bandwidth to accomplish more time-critical, tactical, yet secondary tasks.”

The CRADA will be ongoing until the first demonstration takes place in 2025. “It’s an ongoing effort to understand human factors and drive continuous improvement,” the spokesperson added.

Until then, Airmen will continue working with the agency to refine these innovative systems to support the Air Force’s operational needs.

“I look forward to seeing the progress of augmenting basic flying capabilities and how it will increase our overall safety, aperture, and capabilities,” said Ciampa. “The ability to do more with our mission in the KC-135 is exciting – having a system that helps our crews maintain safety first will be paramount as we look to do more with our aircrews and aircraft.”

This partnership represents a significant step toward integrating advanced autonomous systems in military aviation, aiming to enhance efficiency and safety, all while extending the life of older aircraft through retrofitted autonomy systems.