A prototype aerial tanker — an unmanned one – took flight for the first time on 19th September 2019, a key step toward an autonomous aircraft that can refuel fighter jets flying from aircraft carriers. The first flight of Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray is going to take place in early 2022, and operations would begin in 2024. Furthermore, to validate the aircraft’s basic flight functions and operations with the ground control station, the aircraft has completed an autonomous taxi and takeoff at a pre-determined route. The autonomous refueling drone, during the trial flight, took off from MidAmerica Airport outside St.Louis and flew for two hours. As engineers in a twin-engine turboprop followed along in the sky, the drone then returned to the airport and landed.

Autonomous Refueling Drone takes its first flight
The autonomous refueling drone MQ-25 Stingray

The MQ-25 could extend the operational range of strike fighters

“Seeing MQ-25 in the sky is a testament to our Boeing and Navy team working the technology, systems, and processes that are helping get MQ-25 to the carrier,” MQ-25 Program Director Dave Bujold said in a press release. “This aircraft and its flight test program ensures we’re delivering the MQ-25 to the carrier fleet with the safety, reliability, and capability the U.S. Navy needs to conduct its vital mission.” It was indeed an important step towards getting the drone on the flight deck, according to Boeing’s project head.

“The MQ-25 was really a signature program to test the limits and plow new ground in that direction,” Richardson. “And so we brought industry in way earlier. I think that’s key to getting the acquisition cycle faster, even in the refinement of the requirements phase.” “And so that’s where we’ve been with MQ-25, is to bring them in, see what they’ve got and seen how fast they can get a prototype together to fly. One thing we did do was we locked down on requirements. We could probably get agreement from everybody that we need something to tank. It liberates a lot of our strike fighters from doing that mission and it’s something that we can get done ― its relatively straightforward.”