Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray test asset, known as T1, has conducted the first successful aerial refueling of a manned receiver aircraft by an unmanned tanker. The landmark is a vital one as the U.S. Navy looks forward to adding the MQ-25 to its carrier air wings, or CVWs, in the future.
The Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) and Boeing announced today that the T1 test article had demonstrated its tanker capability with an F/A-18F Super Hornet jet fighter on June 4, 2021. The drone had flown from MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois. The MQ-25 demonstrator aircraft passed fuel to the Super Hornet using an Aerial Refueling Store (ARS) mounted under its wing.
As well as the fighter actually ‘plugging in’ to the drone to receive fuel, the same test mission involved evaluation of formation flying between the manned and unmanned assets, with as little as 20 feet separation between the two. Other test points included tracking the drogue — the basket-like assembly trailed by the MQ-25 that connects with a receiver aircraft’s standard refueling probe. Both aircraft were flying at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes, according to Boeing.
“This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts,” said Navy Rear Admiral Brian Corey, head of the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. “MQ-25 will greatly increase the range and endurance of the future carrier air wing — equipping our aircraft carriers with additional assets well into the future.”
In 2015, Northrop Grumman and the Navy successfully demonstrated fully autonomous aerial refueling using the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) drone, which refueled in flight from a contractor-operated Boeing 707 tanker. That was the first time an unmanned aircraft had been refueled in-flight.
Prior to that, in 2012, DARPA’s Autonomous High-Altitude Refueling program demonstrated fully autonomous aerial refueling of unmanned air vehicles at high altitude. This culminated with two modified RQ-4 Global Hawkdrones flying in close formation to test probe-and-drogue contacts, as seen in this video:
The first refueling sortie for the MQ-25 demonstrator was the 26th for the T1 test vehicle but there has also been extensive simulations of aerial refueling using MQ-25 digital models.