FARNBOROUGH 2008: Alenia demonstrates autonomous tanker approach

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Alenia Aeronautica's Sky-X unmanned air vehicle has flown autonomously to rendezvous with an Alenia Aeronautica C-27J at 6,000ft (1,830m) to simulate an in-flight refuelling operation.

Flying from the Italian air force's Amendola base, in the Puglia region, the Sky-X automatically chased, approached, aligned itself and made the final flight refuelling simulation manoeuvres within a few metres of the C-27J, which acted as the tanker flying at 140kt (260km/h). The Sky-X also returned to base, landed and rolled to its parking area automatically.

Alenia has focused its mission management system research to develop the capability of chasing and approaching an aircraft to close in at a very short distance but the Sky-X's approach could also be handled from a ground control station.

The UAV uses GPS navigation, optical technology for the chase, and can determine its distance from the tanker and dynamically replan its route back to base.

Alenia has two demonstrators, Sky-X and Sky-Y, and it wants to develop autonomous air refuelling because it believes it is "an area which shows a market forecast of about €90 billion [$143 billion] and 3,000 aircraft in the next 30 years".

The Finmeccanica company wants to demonstrate autonomous formation flight, with respect to a "mother" aircraft that would be the notional tanker.

It also wants to demonstrate its GPS/optical guidance system as an alternative to landing infrastructure such as ground-based sensors or differential GPS, which may not be available.