The SMART MRTT programme is developing, certifying and implementing Automatic Air-to-Air refuelling (A3R) capability as well as enhanced maintenance solutions for the A330 MRTT.
The A3R system requires no additional equipment on the receiver and is intended to reduce air refuelling operator (ARO) workload, improve safety and optimise the rate of air-to-air refuelling (AAR) transfer in operational conditions to maximise aerial superiority.
Once the A3R system is activated by the ARO, the Boom Flight Control System becomes fully automated and progresses to transfer fuel upon contact with the receiver. During this process, the ARO simply monitors the operation. In the event of an anomaly due to receiver stability deviations or malfunctions on the tanker, the A3R system is able to disconnect and/or clear the Boom away from the receiver safely.
On the receiver end, pilots closing in to the tanker take visual cues from the automated Pilot Director Lights (PDL). This feature allows for more efficient operations, with smoother transitions and minimises time during the coupled state. The A3R development paves the way towards a fully autonomous aerial refuelling operation.
Airbus has achieved the first ever fully automatic air-to-air refuelling (A3R – Automatic Air-to-Air Refuelling) operation with a boom system. The flight test campaign, conducted earlier in the year over the Atlantic Ocean, involved an Airbus tanker test aircraft equipped with the Airbus A3R solution, with an F-16 fighter aircraft of the Portuguese Air Force acting as a receiver. This milestone is part of the industrialisation phase of A3R systems ahead of its implementation in the A330 MRTT tanker development.
The campaign achieved a total of 45 flight test hours and 120 dry contacts with the A3R system, covering the whole aerial refuelling envelope, as the F-16 and A330 MRTT consolidate the maturity and capabilities of the development at this stage. The certification phase will start in 2021.
The A3R system requires no additional equipment on the receiver aircraft and is intended to reduce Air Refuelling Operator (ARO) workload, improve safety and optimise the rate of air-to-air refuelling transfer in operational conditions, helping maximise aerial superiority. The goal for the A3R system is to develop technologies that will reach fully autonomous capabilities.
Once the system is activated by the ARO, the A3R flies the boom automatically and keeps the alignment between the boom tip and the receiver receptacle with an accuracy of a couple of centimeters; the proper alignment and the receiver stability is checked in real-time to keep a safe distance between the boom and the receiver and also to determine the optimum moment to extend the telescopic beam to achieve the connection with the receiver.
At this point, the fuel transfer is initiated to fill up the receiver aircraft and once completed and the disconnection is commanded, the boom is cleared away from the receiver by retracting the telescopic beam and flying the boom away to keep a safe separation distance. During this process, the ARO simply monitors the operation.
As the most capable new-generation tanker, combat-proven and with unique multi-role capabilities, the Airbus A330 MRTT – based on the successful Airbus A330-200 – is the benchmark for multi-role tankers.
As a new-generation tanker, the A330 MRTT is a perfect replacement for older aircraft under fleet replacement programmes. With 60 total aircraft sales as of March 2020, the A330 MRTT has been ordered by Australia (as launch customer), France, NATO, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and the UK.
The A330 MRTT is the most effective tanker based on its unmatched fuel capacity that allows it to offload more fuel at any given distance than any competitor. More fuel on-board means more flexibility, more range and longer time on station. Its enormous fuel capacity allows the A330 MRTT to act as a force multiplier, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of fast jets operations.
Refuelling capabilities of the A330 MRTT have been validated in testing operations with fighter and larger receiver aircraft, and were bolstered by Airbus’ 2018 agreement with Lockheed Martin to jointly explore opportunities to meet the growing demand for aerial refuelling for U.S. defence customers – with the A330 MRTT at its heart.
To refuel receptacle-equipped aircraft such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-35A Lightning II, or another the A330 MRTT (when fitted with a Universal Aerial Refuelling Receptacle Slipway Installation, UARRSI), the A330 MRTT is provided with the advanced Airbus Defence and Space Aerial Refuelling Boom System (ARBS).
Its fast fuel flow rate (up to a maximum of 3,600 kg/min – 1,200 US gal/min) makes the ARBS the most capable new-generation flight-proven boom available. Excellent handling qualities are provided for the operation of the ARBS, rated as such by independent assessments.