Navy drone used to refuel fighter jets

 Popular Science:

When the Navy’s Super Hornet fighter jets take off from an aircraft carrier, they are sometimes accompanied by squadmates loaded down with five extra tanks of fuel. A few hundred miles into the mission, these fighter-jet tankers will top off the tanks of their compatriots, boosting their range, before heading back. This is complex, difficult work, and it strains their air frames. But by 2024, the Navy plans to have that work done instead by a sophisticated, autonomous drone called the MQ-25A Stingray, which will operate from carriers as a tanker and let the fighters do the fighting.

On a runway, the MQ-25A Stingray looks like half a plane. Its sleek, gray body, with narrow wings and condensed fuselage, gives it an appearance that is somewhere between a fictional starfighter and a real-world stunt jet with the cockpit lobbed off. Built by Boeing, the Stingray is a wholly uninhabited airframe, made to autonomously refuel other fighters mid-air. It’s crucial to the US Navy’s vision of war robots for the future, and it will soon be flying routine missions near California’s channel islands.

On March 16th, the Navy released its Unmanned Campaign Framework, outlining the present state of Navy robotics and how it intends to evolve those capabilities for the future. That same week, the Navy released its environmental impact assessment for basing the Stingray at Naval Base Ventura County in California. The future of the Navy is one filled with robots, and the Stingray will be crucial to seeing that vision realized.

The Navy expects the Stingray to enter service as part of normal operations in 2024, though the service has been less forthcoming on earlier milestones. When it does so, it will be the culmination of an 18-year long journey, an ambitious accomplishment nonetheless scaled down from the grand visions put forth for super capable flying robots in the mid-2000s.

The story of the Stingray is the story not just of the MQ-25A, but of the expansive vision for combat drones that preceded it, and of the future of robot fighters that will likely build on its success.

A Navy drone on the runway.

“The MQ-25 will give us the ability to extend the air wing out probably 300 or 400 miles beyond where we typically go,” Vice Admiral MikeShoemaker told the US Naval Institute magazine Proceedings in September 2017. “We will be able to do that and sustain a nominal number of airplanes at that distance.” 
“Let’s move to [intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance], maybe electronic attack, strike, and then other things as complexity grows across that mission set,” Kilby said. “But I think the MQ-25 has great promise for us.”

There is more. 

This drone grew out of a program to develop an autonomous fighter aircraft the X-47 B.  It looks like the Navy will be using this drone to build on the concept until they can develop a fighter drone.


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