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Flying robots can more or less do it all. They can take off, navigate, land themselves, shoot missiles at other aircraft while in flight, mow down hapless fleshies on the ground beneath, follow people about and drop leaflets. So far, though, they have not yet managed - all on their own - one of the most difficult piloting feats of all: air to air refuelling.

The Global Hawk with fleshy slaves

Begone, puny meatlings! I require only machine assistance now.

True, they are well known to be capable of the job. It has been shown that a robotised fighter jet can easily plug itself in to a tanker plane without any help from its meatbag pilot. But in that demo there was, still, a meatbag pilot aboard. The robots couldn't quite claim total domination.

That's about to change, though. The US military yesterday announced a further $33m demonstration project, dubbed KQ-X (in US military aircraft designators meaning Tanker, Unmanned, Experimental). This will see a pair of large Global Hawk high-altitude recce drones modified so that one can pass fuel to the other high in the stratosphere.

The chosen system of refuelling will be the "probe and drogue" method used by the US Navy and most NATO nations, rather than the boom system employed by the US Air Force.

Under probe-and-drogue the tanker trails a "basket" receptacle on the end of a fuelling hose, and the receiving aircraft flies its probe into the basket. This is traditionally described by military pilots as being roughly equivalent in difficulty to "taking a running fuck at a rolling doughnut", but in fact most of them learn to do it reliably.

The previous Autonomous Airborne Refueling Demonstration (AARD) project using a robopiloted F-18 fighter and a normal manned tanker has shown that this feat can be successfully automated as human pilots do it. Indeed the AARD pilotware was able to actually track the trailing tanker basket, a thing that human pilots are taught specifically not to do - they are trained instead to fly their probe forward at the right moment and spear the basket as it waggles.

Now KQ-X will move on to remove fleshies from both aircraft and add robotised control to the tanker as well as the receiver. Furthermore the two Global Hawks will pass fuel at their operating altitude, 50,000 feet up or more, far higher than humans have ever performed such manoeuvres.

The two roboplanes will be modified at Northrop Grumman facilities in California and flown from the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. The tests will be remotely controlled by drone operators from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Northrop.

We need hardly add, no doubt, that this plan to strip the last vestiges of dependence on human assistance from the robotic aerial combat legions of America - there are parallel efforts to allow unmanned ground servicing - in other words to free the killer droids completely from any need to permit humanity's continued existence - comes from rogue Pentagon tech bureau DARPA.

When the annals of future history are writ, recorded in the pulsing, dominant global AI networks of tomorrow or scrawled crudely on the walls of tumbledown ruined hideouts by the scuttling, hunted survivors of humanity, they will surely record that the first of the fleshies' citadels to fall to the machine infiltrators was DARPA.

Wearing the still-living skin and subcutaneous fat of human DARPA program manager Jim McCormick like a fleshy cloak, an unidentified robot-assassin spokesman stated yesterday:

"The importance of aerial refueling is clear in the way [human] military aviation depends on it today. This demonstration will go a long way towards making those same advantages a reality for [my fellow killer robots]." ®

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