A robotic, unmanned refuelling system could help limit rotary-wing aircraft time on the ground and remove soldiers from isolated fuelling stations.

A Limited Initial Capabilities Demonstration was performed by the US Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) to test the theory.

The demonstration unveiled a new science and technology (S&T) effort designed by the Center’s Aviation Development Directorate and Operational Energy Lab called Autonomous & Robotic Remote Refueling Point, or AR3P and demonstrated the technical feasibility of an autonomous robot refuelling operation.

Refuelling challenges

The project’s goal is to enable army aviation manned rotary-wing aircraft to address current and emerging range and endurance requirements, as well as refuelling challenges created by the non-contiguous battlefield. By using self-aligning robotics, articulated arms and sensors, the system could reduce the aircraft’s time on the ground. The robotic, unmanned system would also increase safety by removing soldiers from the fuelling station – a location that could put them at risk of enemy targeting.

“One of the most useful activities of the S&T enterprise is to conduct concept demonstrations like the AR3P,” said Layne Merritt AMRDEC’s chief engineer for Aviation Development. “For relatively little investment, we can demonstrate the technical viability of a new concept like unmanned or unattended Forward Area Refuelling Point (FARP) operations and at the same time identify possible challenges and considerations that would need to be addressed in a full S&T or acquisition program.”

The AR3P concept uses an isolated FARP approach which seeks to provide an autonomous, unmanned refuelling capability using existing technologies. These technologies include aviation ground support equipment, sensors, energy efficient sustainment equipment, aircraft components with minor modifications and aircraft refuelling interfaces and equipment.

A majority of the robotic package comes from commercial off-the-shelf materials, but the fuel port system is an AMRDEC-designed solution. Use of additive manufacturing assisted in the rapid prototyping of this project.

Technical obstacles

Merritt explained that examples of technical challenges include size, weight, power, robotic control, detectability and durability.

“It makes sense for us to fill this need,” said AR3P Project Lead, Will Nikonchuk. “We address target acquisition and engagement all of the time as the aviation and missile research and development community. That is what AR3P does.”

Nikonchuk says the project is currently addressing technical risk areas in phase two and hopes to establish a framework for future funding. Phase three includes aircraft modification and flight testing of a Mosquito Test aircraft, while the fourth and final phase will feature a flight test of an Apache AH-64 at the Aviation Applied Technology Directorate at Fort Eustis, Virginia.