PMA-201 demonstrates SBIR technology to advance aerial refueling

The ASDRS/ORS Test team in the AEDC Full Scale Wind Tunnel, August 2019.

In August, successful wind tunnel testing and demonstration combining two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) projects in simulated flight took place at the AEDC National Full-Scale Aerodynamics Complex (NFAC) 40 by 80 wind tunnel at NASA Ames, California.

Research under SBIR topic N07-172 lead to the development of Actively Stabilized Refueling Drogue System (ASDRS) by Analytical Mechanical Associated (AMA); a system that is able to counteract disturbances on the aerial refueling drogue in flight. Integrated with the N15A-T014 effort developed by Coherent Technical Services, Inc. (CTI), the Innovative Instrumentation Package: Optical Reference System (ORS), an image processing system that can determine drogue position with Hi-Resolution video has resulted in a more stable aerial refueling platform. These began as two separate Science and Technology efforts in response to two independent needs.

The first was the need to provide a more stable aerial refueling platform so that our receiver aircraft could engage the drogue and receive fuel more safely and efficiently. The ASDRS consists of a pair of aluminum shrouds that can rotate mounted onto the exiting hose end-refueling coupling. On these shrouds are pairs of lift and roll strakes that produce the lift force to counteract the disturbance and the roll torque needed to generate power that will stored in a system of onboard super-capacitors. A pair of DC motors controlled by an onboard control law system drives the drogue control system. When the system is not in active mode, the DC motors recharge the super-capacitors.

The original Phase I effort for N07-172 was awarded to Nielsen Engineering & Research, a branch of AMA, back in 2008 to research an innovative controllable drogue refueling system. This research led to a Phase II award in 2012 followed by a PHII.5 in 2016 totaling over $2 million in SBIR funding to continue refining the technology to deliver innovative concepts for stabilization and control.

Separately, to support future readiness and reliability of the Aerial Refueling Store (ARS), an innovative instrumentation package is being developed to better monitor system performance. Part of this package is the ORS, which provides real time hose, drogue and receiver position. The ORS consists of a pair of high-resolution cameras, image processing algorithms, and data storage. The ORS is housed in the tanker system, in this case, the USN Aerial Refueling Store (ARS). ORS can provide real time drogue and receiver position relative to the tanker aircraft at up to 20 Hz. It is also serves as the perfect drogue position feedback sensor for the ASDRS.

Sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Phase I topic N15A-T014 awarded in 2015 and titled “aircraft carrier-based precision ship-relative navigation guidance for aircraft landing under emissions control conditions” covered a broad range of Navy aerial applications. It was later picked up by NAVAIR and awarded a Phase II in 2018 to continue development for a total of over $800,000 in Phase I and II SBIR funds.

Early in CY2019, these two programs began integrating their system performance with the goal of demonstrating integrated system performance, which successfully tested this last August.

“This integrated test effort was a significant milestone for both the Stabilized Drogue (N07-172) and Optical Reference System (N15A-T014) SBIR efforts. The active stabilization results, using the ORS as a feedback sensor, are impressive and show that these technologies have the potential to transform the aerial refueling mission. We look forward to continued development of these items and will look to transition them as part of our Advanced Aerial Refueling Store program,” said Capt. John Dougherty, PMA-201 Precision Strike Weapons.

NAVAIR’s PMA-201 has recently been awarded a Future Readiness Initiative (FRI) starting in 2021 to develop the next iteration of the ARS. These technologies will be key enablers for the future unmanned/automated receiver and are being looked at to transition under this FRI to support readiness and the future automated receivers. Other transition opportunities could include tanker platforms such as USMC and US Air Force.

“AMA is proud to bring this enabling technology to the Navy warfighter so they may perform their mission in a more effective and safe manner, “ said John Abrams, P.E., vice president, Advanced Projects, Analytical Mechanical Associated. “The continuing technology transition is the product of a team effort from innovative engineers, the Navy and its dedicated personnel, key subcontractors, and industry partners.”

“At CTSi, we are passionate about solving these hard problems for our customer, and ultimately delivering these solutions to the warfighter,” said Tom Sanders, managing director, Coherent Technical Services, Inc. “The mission of aerial refueling has always been difficult and dangerous, and our system will not only protect our pilots and aircraft, but enable the future of unmanned military aviation.”