Humans might not have much involvement in mid-air refueling before long. Boeing has flown a test version of its MQ-25 tanker drone with a refueling pod attached for the first time, taking it one step closer to topping up military aircraft. The 2.5-hour flight showed that the autonomous drone’s aerodynamics were sound with the wing-mounted pod it’s expected to carry much of the time.
The test drone, T1, is a precursor to an “engineering development” model that will take Boeing one step closer to a finished vehicle.
This could be a crucial machine. The US Navy ultimately hopes to order more than 70 MQ-25 drones that will take over the fuel tanker role F/A-18 Hornet fighters have had to serve. The robotic aircraft should not only free those jets for their intended combat roles, but spare human pilots from having to fly a routine and often mundane mission. While that could lead to fewer pilots overall, it could also help keep people out of harm’s way.