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Thursday, August 16, 2007

DARPA completes successful autonomous in-flight refueling without pilot intervention

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is always on the forefront of technology. When DARPA isn't collaborating with research centers to develop technology for the consumer sector, it's looking at ways to advance military technology. DARPA's latest achievement is no exception.

DARPA and NASA successfully completed a demonstration of an autonomous system for in-flight refueling -- a procedure that has become all too familiar for military pilots on extended missions.

The Autonomous Airborne Refueling Demonstration (AARD) used a combination GPS, video mapping and fly-by-wire antics to plug an F/A-18's refueling nozzle into a 707-300 tanker's fuel receptacle. DARPA and NASA completed 18 successful tests using a variety of control methods and under a varying range of flight conditions.

"The system further demonstrated the ability to join the tanker from up to two nautical miles behind, 1,000 feet below, and 30 degrees off heading, thus providing a ready transition from the waypoint control approach used by most unmanned aircraft to a fully autonomous refueling mode" DARPA noted in a press release. "In recent flights, automatic sequencing reflected improved confidence in the system, compared to last year's flight where pilot consent was required at specified points in the refueling maneuver."

"Skilled pilots can actually save some tricky, last second movement the basket has a habit of making, but in so doing they set themselves up for a basket strike, ripping off the basket from the hose, or sometimes breaking the probe or parts of the airplane," said NASA test pilot Dick Ewers.

The AARD further removes human pilots from the equation when it comes to combat situations. Unmanned aircraft are continually being developed by the military to take human pilots out of harm's way. An unmanned aircraft that has the ability to refuel on its own in combat situations would make for an excellent weapon in the military's vast arsenal.

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Monocular, vision based, autonomous refueling system

This paper describes design and implementation of a vision based platform for automated refueling tasks. The platform is an autonomous docking system in principle, with the specific application - refueling of vehicles. The system is. based on monochromatic, monocular vision, and it utilizes very specialized image processing schemes. Image processing consists of very fast filtering and segmenting algorithms, as well as moment's computation. A robotic arm with 6 joints (FANUC M-6i), and a controller unit (R-B), does the physical work. A serial interface, with very high-level commands, connects a supercomputing machine and the robot's controller. A practical setup would probably be scaled down to a special design robot, and a single processor, controller with special VLSI chips for image processing. Results are very promising; the robot can identify the cap position, orientation, and height in real time with acceptable accuracy and reliability.

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