Northrop Grumman’s X-47B Unmanned Aircraft Refuels In-Flight

US Navy

For the first time, an unmanned system has refueled while in flight.

Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy recently demonstrated fully autonomous aerial refueling, or AAR, according to a news release. They successful refueled the company’s X-47B, a strike fighter-sized unmanned aircraft developed as part of the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System, or UCAS. Carrier Demonstration program.

During the “Navy-style” AAR demonstration, the X-47B performed a “close formation flight rendezvous” with an Omega K-707 tanker, according to the release. After receiving clearance from the tanker crew, the X-47B moved into position behind the K-707 and engaged the drogue. Once the refueling was complete, the X-47B autonomously disengaged the drogue, maneuvered away from the tanker and returned to base.

This in-flight refueling marks another milestone for the X-47B, which became the first unmanned aircraft to autonomously launch from and recover aboard an aircraft carrier in 2013, according to the release. Together, these demonstrations represent a step forward in autonomy that could help reduce costs for both unmanned and manned aircraft.

“AAR testing with the X-47B helps solidify the concept that future unmanned aircraft can perform standard missions like aerial refueling and operate seamlessly with manned aircraft as part of the Carrier Air Wing,” said Capt. Beau Duarte, the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program manager, according to the release.

The company first began developing AAR technology for the Air Force and the Navy about 10 years ago, according to the release, and uses an approach that integrates infrared imaging and GPS to “enhance navigational precision and hedge against GPS disruption.” They began UCAS-D flight tests in 2012 with a manned Learjet instead of the X-47B, helping refine the X-47B AAR system.

For more information about the program visit