Drone Aerial Refueling Project Progresses

A flight test conducted at an altitude of 45,000 feet, during which a piloted Proteus test aircraft approached to within 40 feet of a NASA Global Hawk drone, was hailed as a success by engineers and is seen as another step closer to the goal of aerial refueling between unmanned aircraft. The approach of the Northrop Grumman Proteus to the Global Hawk tested its performance in the presence of wake turbulence, and although no actual refueling took placing during the flight test, the data gathered regarding flight control responsiveness and engine performance will prove invaluable in preparation for the real thing. Moreover, the two aircraft undertook simulated breakaway maneuvers essential for stealth surveillance tactics.

The Global Hawk, also manufactured by Northrop Grumman, is proving its value in high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) flight, offering the science community the means to measure, monitor and observe remote locations unattainable previously. The Global Hawk currently boasts an 11,000 nautical mile range and 30-hour endurance. Aerial refueling will extend this capability tremendously, with the initial aim of remaining airborne for a week. As part of the $33 million Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) KQ-X project, the goal is to have successful aerial refueling between two Global Hawk drones by spring 2012.

From a military and defense point of view, having drones with HALE capabilities opens up the opportunities for surveillance beyond current capacity, while reducing the risk factor of piloted flights. From a science standpoint these aircraft make it possible to gather information relating to Earth System Science, defined as the study of global environmental changes involving interactions between land, water, atmosphere, ice, biosphere, societies, economies and technologies.

The Global Hawk is 44 foot long, with a wingspan of over 116 feet and a height of 15 feet. Powered by a single Rolls Royce AE3007H turbofan engine, its gross takeoff weight is 25,600 pounds including 2,000 pound payload capability. Northrop Grumman is working in conjunction with NASA Dryden and is responsible for the design and modification of the Global Hawk Aircraft. Other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) being developed at this time include the Phantom Eye by Boeing and Northrop Grumman’s X-47B and Fire-X.