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Boeing MQ-25 refuelling drone is ready for service

Konstantin Sheiko
March 16, 2018

Boeing has finally unveiled its MQ-25 "Stingray" drone in its entirety - including a view of its very slender wings. New information on it, as well as a clearer idea of what Boeing has in store for its bobsled-shaped unmanned tanker aircraft has come to light. The ground tests included locking the aircraft into a mock catapult and parking it in some of the tightest dimensional spaces on the flight deck.   

The aircraft's small air inlet on its nose is used for environmental cooling, while the camera system seen on the drone is just for testing purposes. An electro-optical sensor turret will eventually be fitted should the company win the contract to build four prototypes. Although Boeing is not pitching their entrant as low-observable, it clearly has many low observable features. However, the long, slender, glider-like wings that we are just now getting a full view of in detail are not stealthy at all.   

Boeing says that their aircraft will be able to meet the CBARS requirements with substantial margin built in. That is a high order as the Navy's future MQ-25 has to unload seven tons of gas to other aircraft after flying 500 miles from the carrier and then have enough fuel to return to the boat.   

An internal weapons bay seems plausible considering the fuselage design, and it may even be there already considering the aircraft was originally designed for such a mission set. In light of what we know now about Boeing's MQ-25 wing design, the question of where the government furnished Cobham aerial refuelling pod will be mounted is a relevant one. It seems that the aircraft's centreline will be the most logical location.   

It is not clear if the wings will feature any sort of hard-points that could accommodate the pod or external fuel tanks, but considering its thin chord, it seems doubtful. And those wings do not look like they can hold much gas either, making one wonder if 14,000 pounds of gas can fit inside its fuselage alone. That's just over an F-15C's full internal fuel load, and that does not count the gas the MQ-25 needs to make it 500 miles to its tanking position and back to the boat.  

It is still unclear who is part of Boeing's team for their MQ-25 entrant. The engine manufacturer and type are particularly of interest considering the design's exotic flush-fitted air inlet configuration, one that is historically problematic when it comes to airflow, especially at higher angles of attack, like when landing aboard an aircraft carrier.  

Some think that the service, which has a major cultural aversion to unmanned carrier aviation, will "strangle the MQ-25 in the crib" long before it gets to that point. And considering how the program has devolved over the years that is not an unwarranted assumption.  

Nevertheless, the future of tactical combat aviation is unmanned, and the unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) realm is especially attractive when it comes to carrier operations. With this in mind, if Boeing can get a foothold in this space with the Navy, it could mean the company would have a huge advantage when it comes to fielding more advanced and plentiful unmanned carrier-borne aircraft systems down the line. And some of those systems could just end up being Boeing's current MQ-25 design reverted to its earlier stealthier configuration.