Robo-Tanker Ready?

We've all read about unmanned spy planes and remotely-piloted bombers. Now, "two U.S. Air Force test pilot school students have designed an autonomous aerial refueling scheme for an unmanned tanker," Aviation Week reports.two_planes.jpgUsing two manned planes as surogates, the students linked together the "bank-angle and roll-rate measurements and the relative positions" of the two aircraft.

These inputs manipulated the control surfaces and throttles, automatically allowing the aircraft to hold a series of positions and transitions while flying a standard racetrack course, even when the tanker was in a 30-deg. bank. By the final flights, pilots kept their hands off the controls for nearly 2 hr. In straight-and-level flight, the controller held the receiver within 1.3 ft. of the desired refueling position.
Unmanned planes can already stay in the air for a whole lot longer than aircraft with a pilot in the cockpit. The only endurance limit has been how much fuel the drone can carry. If the student-designed scheme can be made to work consistently, that final barrier could be gone.
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