The United States Navy was the first to successfully refuel mid-flight - opening up many possibilities for technological and practical growth.
One of the biggest problems that the US Navy had to solve when they developed unmanned drones was their ability to perform routine maintenance on the planes. Yesterday, however, they were able to break down that problem by refueling mid flight, the U.S. Navy announced.
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The operation happened while the unmanned vehicle was flying off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. That was when the X-47B, designed to eventually operate off of naval aircraft carriers, successfully connected to an Omega K-707 refueling tanker and received more than 4,000 pounds of fuel.
The Navy wasn't initially sure if this project would happen, due to concerns over fires and water contamination.
However, the refueling went off without a problem. "What we accomplished today demonstrates a significant, groundbreaking step forward for the Navy," Capt. Beau Duarte, the manager for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Aviation program, said according to The Washington Post. "The ability to autonomously transfer and receive fuel in flight will increase the range and flexibility of future unmanned aircraft platforms, ultimately extending carrier power projection."
The hope is that the Navy can now expand their fleet, removing American airmen from the cockpits and out of harm's way. The plane was developed in 2013, and many people feared what enemies could do with the planes, especially if they crashed in enemy territory. Now, that isn't a problem anymore.
The Navy is extremely pleased with the ability to keep using these planes, and hope to develop the technology for other branches of the military.
"In manned platforms, aerial refueling is a challenging maneuver because of the precision required by the pilot to engage the basket," Duarte said. "Adding an autonomous functionality creates another layer of complexity."
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They hope to have an entire fleet by 2020, according to the Navy. There are still some test runs they need to perform before they can put the plane into active duty.