The improved Remote Vision System 2.0 (RVS 2.0) that Boeing will install on the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker includes LiDAR (light detecting and ranging) sensors that could allow autonomous aerial refueling.
On Apr. 2, 2020 in fact Boeing agreed to fix the KC-46’s troubled Remote Vision System by creating an overhauled RVS 2.0 with new hardware and software. As told by Defense News, US Air Force (USAF) acquisition executive Will Roper told reporters those changes would include the addition of 4K high-definition cameras that will display imagery in color as well as modern processors and LiDAR sensors that will help improve depth perception.
With the help of scientists and engineers from both enterprises, the USAF will lead design reviews and approve specifications to drive the partnership toward initial fielding in 2023.
Roper points out that data collected by the sensors as well as from 4K high-definition cameras could be feed into “into algorithms that allow the tanker to tank itself.”
The KC-46’s Remote Vision System has been a thorn in the side of the aircraft program since 2017, when issues with the system were first discovered. RVS is supposed to let Airmen see where the plane’s refueling boom is in relation to an aircraft it is trying to gas up. But at around 10 feet from the receiver aircraft, the RVS doesn’t focus well enough to connect, sometimes causing the operator to hit the nearby plane.
The problem will be fixed by the new LiDAR system: according to Roper in fact, LiDAR is like a backup camera on a car that also provides cues to a driver for parallel parking or assessing whether a vehicle is aligned flush to a curb.
The USAF is so confident in the prospect of using the RVS 2.0 as a stepping stone to an autonomous tanker that it included an option in last week’s agreement to fund the development of technologies that enable autonomous or semiautonomous refueling.
“We took that step because, one, we’re excited about being on the doorsteps of autonomy and, [two], we wanted to send a clear signal in the deal that this is our tanker for the future,” Roper Pointed out.
Autonomous refueling capability has been of increasing interest to the service over the past few years, as sensing and artificial intelligence technologies grow by leaps and bounds.
The KC-46A is the first phase in recapitalizing the U.S. Air Force’s aging tanker fleet. With greater refueling, cargo and aeromedical evacuation capabilities compared to the KC-135, the KC-46A will provide next generation aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and partner-nation receivers.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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