Boeing and the US Air Force are preparing to upgrade the KC-46 Pegasus tanker for autonomous refueling capability.
“The Air Force and Boeing will make the KC-46 synonymous with aerial refueling excellence. Not only will these advancements benefit the KC-46 by preparing it for future capabilities like autonomous refueling, they will also benefit other programs for years to come. The investments we continue to make in the KC-46 clearly demonstrate Boeing’s commitment to Pegasus being the standard by which all future refueling aircraft are measured,” Boeing Defense, Space & Security President and CEO Leanne Caret said in a statement Thursday.
“Through close partnership with the USAF, we’ve come to a new agreement that will improve the KC-46’s remote vision systems technology,” the company posted on its official Twitter account.
The upgrade will allow the KC-46 to refuel other aircraft without a human operator directly controlling the operation. The plane is already equipped with several of the necessary features of such a system, including a camera-based remote vision system to visualize the receiver aircraft and a fly-by-wire boom with digitized flight controls.
Boeing has been hinting at such an upgrade for nearly three years now. When it announced the launch of KC-46A follow-on development programme in the first quarter of 2018, Mike Gibbons, the company’s programme manager, told FlightGlobal: “Boeing expects to evaluate additional sensors, such as LIDAR (Light Detecting And Ranging) to augment the remote vision system and differential GPS to pinpoint the positioning between the refueling boom and the receiver aircraft.”
On March 30, the USAF reported a Category 1 fault- excessive fuel leaks- with the KC-46. In a statement, the Air Force said that it “first identified excessive fuel leaks in July of 2019 after an air refueling test.”
Meanwhile on Thursday, a Pentagon official told the media that the USAF will release $882 million in payments to Boeing that were held back due to flaws in the KC-46- the aircraft’s camera and display system does not work well in certain lighting conditions. The Air Force said that the payment is not for the redesign, but to provide Boeing liquidity during the cash crunch caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 2, the two parties reached an agreement- Boeing will ensure that the operator seated at a computer at the front of the tanker is able to maneuver the refueling boom at the tail of the plane so it can connect to a receiving aircraft.
Boeing KC-46 vice president and program manager Jamie Burgess said in a press briefing that his team will completely redesign every component: the cameras, the display system and the underlying computer system. In addition to introduction of LIDAR, the aircraft's monochromatic system will be converted to a full-color display similar to those used for collision avoidance on autonomous cars that will measure the distance from the tip of the boom to the refueling aircraft.
Flight tests are expected to begin in 2022, Burgess said.