US aerospace manufacturer Boeing has this week unveiled a prototype drone designed for mid-air refuelling of other aircraft.
The new drone will be launched from aircraft carriers and will be able to make use of existing catapults and recovery mechanisms.
If the aircraft is ever put in mass production, it will be deployed as part of forward operations, able to refuel some of the US Air Force’s most advanced jets including F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, and F-35C Lightning II fighters.
The drone was developed by the company’s Phantom Works division which works on experimental concepts and high-tech projects.
“Boeing has been delivering carrier aircraft to the Navy for almost 90 years,” said Don ‘BD’ Gaddis, a retired admiral who leads the refuelling system program for Boeing’s Phantom Works technology organization.
“Our expertise gives us confidence in our approach. We will be ready for flight testing when the engineering and manufacturing development contract is awarded.”
The prototype aircraft is part of a new US Navy design competition for a drone refuelling aircraft given the designation ‘MQ-25 Stingray’.
Proposals for this new aircraft are due in early January next year, and already General Atomics has submitted its own design proposal.
Reportedly the Boeing drone is currently involved in engine tests and will begin its first flight deck trials early next year.
While only limited photos of the aircraft have been released by Boeing, the design appears to have eschewed a ‘flying wing’ design used in many other next-generation drone prototypes.
Instead, it appears to have a more traditional wing design, however also featuring a large V-shaped tail wing too.
The development of the MQ-25 and several other forthcoming drones show the US military is still interested in continuing to develop autonomous aircraft in an expanding number of roles.
Nonetheless, the US is still proceeding ahead with the hugely-expensive F-35 program despite fears that it will be rapidly made obsolete by more capable and much cheaper autonomous fighter aircraft.