The phrase "fill 'er up" is being redefined for the age of robotic aircraft.
Northrop Grumman said yesterday that in a flight test earlier this year, it took a big step closer to an eventual autonomous aerial refueling between unmanned aerial vehicles as part of the $33 million DARPA KQ-X program.
In the "risk reduction flight test," which took place January 21, a Global Hawk UAV from NASA played the role of the
The interaction took place at 45,000 feet in what Northrop Grumman called a "landmark flight." The Global Hawk has a ceiling of about 65,000 feet and can reach speeds approaching 340 knots.
What didn't take place was any actual refueling. This was strictly a dry run.
"Demonstrating close formation flight of two high-altitude aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, is a notable accomplishment," said Geoffrey Sommer, KQ-X program manager in Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, in a statement.
The January flight was a prelude to an actual autonomous aerial refueling involving two Global Hawks, a DARPA KQ-X event that's scheduled for spring 2012. Successful refueling would allow for flights lasting up to one week. According to Northrop Grumman, the 44-foot-long, 13-ton NASA Global Hawk has a maximum endurance of 31 hours.
The broader context here is that the defense sector has its sights fixed on high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) operations for unmanned aerial vehicles, often using more exotic energy sources, for missions such as surveillance and communications. Boeing, for instance, is working on a
This article originally appeared on our sister site CNET