The Proteus approaches the Global Hawk in a flight test on January 21. (Credit: NASA Dryden Flight Research Center)
SAN DIEGO, March 11 (UPI) -- Northrop Grumman and two U.S. government agencies have taken a major step toward demonstrating autonomous aerial refueling by UAVs.
In a key risk reduction flight test, Northrop Grumman's Proteus test aircraft and a NASA Global Hawk flew as close as 40 feet at an altitude of 45,000 feet, an industry-setting record.
The flight test was conducted in the high-altitude environment required for refueling of high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft systems. Wake turbulence between the aircraft, engine performance and flight control responsiveness in the stratosphere were evaluated, Northrop said.
Simulated breakaway maneuvers were also conducted.
The January flight was key to reducing risks as the program prepares for autonomous aerial refueling of two Global Hawks in the spring of 2012.
"Demonstrating close formation flight of two high-altitude aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, is a notable accomplishment," said Geoffrey Sommer, KQ-X program manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems sector. "When you add autonomous flight of both aircraft into the mix, as we will do later in the KQ-X program, you gain a capability that has mission applications far beyond just aerial refueling."
The $33 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency KQ-X program will demonstrate autonomous fuel transfer between two Global Hawks, enabling flights of up to one week endurance.