Airbus’ Military A330 Gains The Capability For Automatic Refueling

Airbus and the Republic of Singapore Air Force teamed up earlier this year to work on an A330 SMART Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft. The idea was to develop new automated aerial refueling capabilities. Less than a year later, Airbus is already hailing the collaboration a triumph.

RSAF A330 MRTT in a refueling operation with an RSAF F-15SG fighter. Photo: Airbus

“You may think, well, this is nice, this is the future of aerial refueling. For Airbus, it is no longer a future. It is a present reality,” says Ivan Garcia Ferreiros, A330 MRTT marketing manager.

In an impressive presentation available on Youtube, Mr Ferreiros paints a picture.

“Imagine that you are flying at more than 25,000 feet, doing more than 400 miles per hour, in close formation with other aircraft that need to be refueled. Maybe on a bad day, or even in the middle of the night.”

He calls this the day to day business of the airborne tanker world. But the MRTT is taking it up several notches.

“Imagine you could do and perform the whole operation with a single push of a button.”

The most capable airborne refueling tanker in the world

Mr Ferreiros is calling the SMART MRTT the world’s most capable tanker with some of the most advanced technologies in the aerospace sector.

The SMART MRTT is equipped with the boom system and an underwing hose and drogue systems (the drogue stabilizes the refueling hose and helps funnel the hose into the refueling aircraft’s probe).

“The MRTT will be the benchmark for many years to come,” says the marketing manager.

The refueling boom system can dispense at more than 1,200 US gallons per minute. If you need to get your head around that capability, it could fill your car’s tank in less than one second.

Traditionally, a refueling operator has manually maneuvered the boom towards the refueling aircraft. The SMART MRTT has introduced new technologies that allow for image processing that facilitates the systems to perform the in-flight refueling process automatically.

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The SMART MRTT at the Singapore Airshow earlier this year. Photo: Airbus

Refueling operator moves from active to supervisory role onboard

There’s still a refueling operator onboard the tanker. But the SMART MRTT has added image processing algorithms so that with a push of the button, the boom will fly, align, and make contact with the refueling aircraft automatically.

“The air refueling operator will pass from a more active position to a supervising role,” says Mr Ferreiros. The operator can retake control if needed just by touching one of the available sticks.

On the refueling plane, the pilots closing in on the tanker take visual cues from the automated Pilot Director Lights. This feature allows for more efficient operations, with smoother transitions, and minimizes time during the coupled state.

Engaging with a SMART MRTT requires no additional equipment or modifications for planes wanting to refuel midair. Airbus Head of Military Aircraft, Alberto Gutiérrez calls the A330 the “benchmark of next-gen tanker operations.”

The first SMART MRTT will be certified next year. Mr Ferreiros has a tanker to sell, so you might expect him to talk up the SMART MRTT’s capabilities. But he’s clearly onto a good thing. The SMART MRTT further strengthens Airbus’ position and technological edge in the airborne tanker market. It’s also a dazzling display of technology and human ingenuity.