WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The bat-wing Navy drone that became the first autonomous airplane to take off and land on an aircraft carrier accomplished yet another milestone on Wednesday, becoming the first unmanned aircraft to undergo aerial refueling.
The U.S. Navy said in a statement the Northrop Grumman X-47B test aircraft completed the first-ever autonomous aerial refueling off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, receiving more than 4,000 pounds of fuel from an Omega K-707 tanker jet.
“What we accomplished today demonstrates a significant, groundbreaking step forward for the Navy,” said Captain Beau Duarte, the program manager for the Navy’s unmanned carrier aviation program, in a statement.
“The ability to autonomously transfer and receive fuel in flight will increase the range and flexibility of future unmanned aircraft platforms, ultimately extending carrier power projection,” he said.
The X-47B took off and landed autonomously on separate occasions in 2013.
The future of the Navy’s broader unmanned carrier aviation program is temporarily on hold as officials debate exactly what missions the planes should be able to perform.
Northrop Grumman of Falls Church, Virginia, said in a statement that the latest demonstration had helped to solidify the concept that future unmanned aircraft can perform standard missions like aerial refueling and operate seamlessly with manned aircraft as part of a carrier air wing.
Representative Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he was “thrilled that this path-breaking program has made aviation history once again.” The achievement “reminds us of the incredible potential” of unmanned carrier aircraft, he said.
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Ted Botha