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Once realized, autonomous aerial refueling will revolutionize unmanned aviation by removing current range and endurance limitations. Previous attempts at establishing vision-based solutions have come close but rely heavily on near perfect extrinsic camera calibrations that often change midflight. In this paper, we propose dual object detection, a technique that overcomes such requirement by transforming aerial refueling imagery directly into receiver aircraft reference frame probe-to-drogue vectors regardless of camera position and orientation. These vectors are precisely what autonomous agents need to successfully maneuver the tanker and receiver aircraft in synchronous flight during refueling operations. Our method follows a common 4-stage process of capturing an image, finding 2D points in the image, matching those points to 3D object features, and analytically solving for the object pose. However, we extend this pipeline by simultaneously performing these operations across two objects instead of one using machine learning and add a fifth stage that transforms the two pose estimates into a relative vector. Furthermore, we propose a novel supervised learning method using bounding box corrections such that our trained artificial neural networks can accurately predict 2D image points corresponding to known 3D object points. Simulation results show that this method is reliable, accurate (within 3 cm at contact), and fast (45.5 fps).


This article is published in Neural Computing and Applications. The published version of record is available online ahead of inclusion in an issue. This was sourced from the article's page on Springer, via the DOI link below.

This article is published by Springer Nature, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Funding note: This study was funded by the US Naval Air Systems Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate.

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Neural Computing and Applications