Boeing unveils unmanned ‘stingray’ drone that refuels military jets in mid-air

In the future, military jets could be refuelled mid-flight thanks to Boeing’s latest unmanned drone design.  

The US Navy requested proposals from companies for the production of unmanned fuelling options back in October, and Boeing’s project is the first to be revealed. The company will be going up against other aeronautical companies such as Lockheed Martin and General Atomics, with the winning design being unveiled next September.

Currently, the process of aerial refuelling is tricky and laborious, requiring military jets to syphon off fuel from tanker aircrafts in mid-air, if the fighters are flying for a long time. This typically means they have to schedule slots for syphoning off fuel at intervals in-flight.

 Boeing’s MQ-25 ‘stingray’ drone will travel on a warship before being flung into the air to a safe spot to land on aircrafts and deliver fuel to the jets. The MQ-25 will deliver roughly 15,000 pounds of fuel, 500 nautical miles from the carrier. The drone will be guided by the crew on deck using a remote controller via radio and satellite.

For now, Boeing’s unmanned aircraft will be able to refuel the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Boeing EA-18G Growler and the Lockheed Martin F-35C fighters. 

To put that into perspective for anyone unfamiliar with fighter jets, the above jets can fly for about 3,000km before they have to refuel. If fighter jets are in transoceanic flight, they are going to have to keep refuelling roughly every 20 minutes, which understandably, can be exhausting for pilots.

“Boeing’s MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system is completing engine runs before heading to the flight ramp for deck handling demonstrations next year,” Boeing said.

While Boeing’s defence arm drones focus on fighter jets, it is difficult to ignore the benefits this could provide for commercial flights in the future. 

At the moment, an average Boeing 747 can fly non-stop for about 16 hours. With Qantas looking to be the first ever commercial airline to fly passengers from the UK to Australia direct in 17 hours in March 2018, the US Navy’s contest designs might be good for more than just fighter jets. 

And while sitting on a plane for any more than 17 hours doesn’t seem all that enticing, it is convenient to say the least.

Image credit: Boeing 

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