Interns Develop Aerial Refueling Planner

July 2017
MITRE Interns

The Air Force's process for planning aerial refueling missions is one that requires planners to manually connect requests for fuel with available tankers. And once they've established the route, they need to input the refueling plans into a computer, which often takes many hours. Contractors have offered new desktop applications, but none have satisfied all the needs of the planners and become their primary tool for aerial refueling missions.

Last summer eight MITRE interns, along with one Air Force intern, developed a prototype electronic whiteboard solution. The Tanker Planner can enable the Air Force to take advantage of new technology while retaining the benefits of manually drawing out the routes, said project leader Chris Partridge.

A Prototype for Developing "What Ifs?"

With the new prototype, planners don't need to spend time writing requested routes on an actual whiteboard. That information goes straight from the requester into the Air Tasking Order Management System. This eliminates the need for data entry at the end of the planning process, said intern Ryan Aikman, a senior at the University of Denver.

The interns also developed an "easy button" that enables the system to make an automated recommendation for the refueling plans, Partridge said. The recommendation takes into account fuel needs, optimal routes for planes to meet tankers, and air traffic concerns.

The recommendation will likely make the process more efficient, even if planners opt to make adjustments based on weather reports or other information about the local environments, said Zack Schiller, a software applications engineer who mentored the interns.

Even a small improvement to the refueling plans could save the Air Force millions of dollars each year, said Derek Lax, a software systems engineer who also mentored the interns. Tankers can take off at a higher weight than they can safely land. When they're left with excess fuel at the end of an operation, they either need to fly longer to burn it off or dump it.

The feedback from the sponsor has been very positive, Partridge said. "We're finding that it jars people out of that desktop mode. It's an interesting and new way to look at this type of data. It's fascinating when you see people use it. They'll crowd around it, and start doing "what ifs?'"

In addition to demonstrating the planning application, this work gave MITRE interns experience building a solution that plugs into existing Air Force Command and Control (C2) systems to remove the need for time-consuming manual entry. The interns' work also helped MITRE identify interface gaps in these C2 systems for future improvements.

—by Jeremy D. Singer

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