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.Using 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.