Airbus just beat Boeing to be the first to complete a wholly automated air-to-air refuelling operation

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.
  • An Airbus A310 aerial tanker successfully underwent a test to autonomously refuel an aircraft to be implemented on the A330 MRTT.
  • The achievement marks the next step in Airbus’ goal to enable autonomy in routine flight operations.
  • Rival Boeing has not been able to achieve the same goal as its new flagship refueler continues to show problems.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Airbus just bested Boeing, achieving a massive milestone in an area that’s recently been haunting the American manufacturer: air-to-air refuelling.

In the latest match-up in the cross-ocean rivalry between the American and European manufacturers, an Airbus A310 MRTT tanker test aircraft successfully completed an automatic refuelling operation with a Portuguese Air Force fighter jet. Boeing has not yet been able to achieve the feat, even with its newest aerial tanker.

Airbus has been leading the charge in autonomous flight operations, with the newly-automated refuelling process the latest step in reducing manual control in aerial procedures. In December, an Airbus A350 XWB successfully took off without pilot input, using software integrated to onboard cameras.

The system has plans to be implemented on Airbus’ newest tanker, the A330 MRTT, with the certification phase scheduled to begin next year. The Airbus A330 MRTT is the European competitor to Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus.

Currently in use with the US Air Force, the KC-46 Pegasus is Boeing’s newest jet but is also proving to be one of its most problematic. Boeing’s Pegasus is nowhere near autonomous refuelling, with the company needing to fix a key system before autonomy can be discussed, an Air Force official told DefenseNews.

Take a look at how Airbus is making history with its flying gas station.


The Airbus A330 MRTT was developed from the A330-200 passenger jet, a popular civilian airliner.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Source: Airbus


The smallest member of the A330 family, the -200 model currently sees service with many of the world’s airlines but is now hitting another stride as a Multi-Role Tanker Transport.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

The A330 MRTT and -200 feature nearly identical airframes and cockpits but the former features military-grade enhancements and exterior cameras for the refuelling process.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Seven countries currently fly the type including Singapore, the UK, France, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and South Korea.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Source: Airbus


The multi-role function enables the aircraft to be flexible in its mission. One day it can be refuelling fighter jets on a repositioning trip from Europe to Asia…

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Source: Airbus


The next, it can be flying 300 soldiers home from the battlefield or acting as a medical evacuation aircraft.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Source: Airbus


Airbus has been working with the Portuguese Air Force to test a new function to eventually be installed on the aircraft, automatic air-to-air refuelling via a boom.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Source: Airbus


The typical process for air-to-air refuelling involves having the recipient aircraft fly closely behind the tanker, at which point a boom is extended by an air refuelling operator inside the jet using cameras and/or spotters to guide the boom into the refuelling port.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Airbus, however, was able to create software that uses the aircraft’s cameras to guide the boom into the refuelling port automatically. Once the two are connecting, the system automatically refuels and then disconnects once the process is done.

AirbusThe first automatic refuelling by an Airbus A310 tanker test aircraft.

Source: Airbus


The actual test was performed on an A310 tanker test aircraft but the system will be a key feature of the A330 MRTT once certified.

Pascal Rossignol/ReutersAn Airbus A310 MRTT.

Another refuelling option involves deploying two hoses from each wing. This option can only be used by aircraft with extended or extendable fuel receivers.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

“During this process, the [air refuelling operator] simply monitors the operation,” Airbus said in a press release.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Source: Airbus


While Airbus is celebrating its plane’s newest milestone, the news is particularly embarrassing for Boeing, whose KC-46 Pegasus aircraft isn’t even in the early stages of having such an ability and has been plagued with issues.

AirbusAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Air Force officials told DefenseNews’ Valerie Insinna in a story published on April 8 that only once Boeing fixes the Remote Vision System on the Pegasus, autonomous refuelling can start to be implemented.

LINDSEY WASSON/ReutersA Boeing KC-46 Pegasus.

Source: DefenseNews


While the 737 Max is Boeing’s high-profile commercial folly, the Pegasus has been its the thorn in the side of its defence division.

LINDSEY WASSON/ReutersA Boeing KC-46 Pegasus.

Software issues, faulty sensors, and other setbacks pushed the KC-46’s delivery day by over a year and continue to cause headaches for the Air Force.

ReutersA Boeing KC-46 Pegasus.

Source: DefenseNews


Nearly $US1 billion had been withheld from Boeing due to the Pegasus’ unresolved problems, DefenseNews reported with the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately seeing Boeing receiving those funds back as part of federal aid.

LINDSEY WASSON/ReutersA Boeing KC-46 Pegasus boom.

Source: DefenseNews


Airbus had bid for A330 MRTT to be the replacement tanker that the US military was looking for. It ultimately went with Boeing.

Tim Chong/ReutersAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Source: Airbus


The certification phase for the system is estimated to begin in 2021 and once complete, the A330 MRTT will be able to tout its new autonomous capability to potential customers.

JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/ReutersAn Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft.

Source: Airbus

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