Are We Ready for Unmanned Refueling Aircraft? US Air Force Says Yes!

Transforming the KC-135 Stratotanker into an unmanned refueling is in the works by the . Merlin Labs, the company assigned to the task, will utilise its innovative software to orchestrate this transition. Here's how it's expected to unfold.

Merlin Labs and US Air Force Collaboration

Merlin Labs will form an alliance with Air Mobility Command and Air Force Materiel Command for this project. The prime focus of this collaboration is the KC-135, the predominant refueling aircraft of the US Air Force. To date, there are 377 KC-135s under the command of this air force, serving for an average of over 60 years.

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Not the First Refueling Aircraft Upgrade

This isn't the first time the US Air Force has put their faith in technology for upgrading their refueling aircraft. The Pentagon, in 2011, vested Boeing with delivering 179 brand new KC-46A refueling aircraft to replace the older KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender aircraft.

Shift in the Project Phases

Initially, the project featured two more phases namely, KC-Y and KC-Z. However, only last year did they decide to trim down the KC-Y phase, involving the purchase of just 75 more aircraft, to speed up the KC-Z phase.

This phase, now named the Next-Generation Air Refueling System (NGAS), has set its sights on developing a new breed of refueling aircraft equipped to function efficiently in challenging environments.

Merlin Labs’ Merlin Pilot Software

The KC-135's transformation will be driven by Merlin Labs' Merlin Pilot software. This software is designed to have total control of an aircraft from takeoff to landing, even in the face of in-flight turbulence. Despite its success during a test run on a C-130J Hercules in 2022, the software is yet to be perfected in terms of detecting runway obstacles or establishing communication with air traffic controllers.

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Fully Unmanned Operations on the Horizon

The KC-135's transformation will kick off by minimizing the crew's workload, ordinarily comprising a pilot, co-pilot, and refueling operator. As the system's effectiveness and reliability increase, it will pave the way for completely unmanned operations. Given the sizeable number of aircraft in service, Merlin Labs is set to gather an ample amount of operational data. This, in turn, will result in a significant enhancement of its advanced automation systems, potentially leading up to autonomous close-formation flying.

Congress’ Stand on the Project

As of now, the Congress has put the replacement of the KC-135s on hold until the Pentagon provides clarity on its plans concerning the NGAS.

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