EA-18G Growlers on the ramp at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. A pilot project under development will create an optimized refueling system designed to boost readiness for military aircraft operating there. (Image: U.S. Navy)

Armed with 5G network technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and edge computing resources, a pilot project under development at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island aims to create an optimized refueling system designed to boost readiness for military aircraft operating there as well as those stopping for fuel en route to other locations.

The project is supported by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (R&E) 5G initiatives program.

Getting fuel to military aircraft in a timely manner can be tricky. Fueling operations must anticipate demand and allocate resources to provide quick turnaround while still accommodating unexpected air traffic.

“The goal of this project is to increase the mission readiness of the aircraft,” said David Alvord, Senior Research Engineer, Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), and Principal Investigator of the pilot program. “We are working with the Navy to increase the reliability of the refueling process, to make sure it’s on time, and help keep everybody in the loop — including the pilots and fuel dispatchers — so they understand the time frame and when and where everything is happening.”

A 5G network on the horizon at Whidbey will be used to connect components of the system — including location tracking and fueling queue information on fuel trucks, computers to analyze planned flight operations, and algorithms designed to optimize the use of fueling resources — replacing an obsolete system that uses walkie-talkies and mobile phone conversations.

“Whidbey, through Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, was directed to leverage commercially available 5G networks, technologies, and processes to experiment with how to ensure that U.S. forces will have connectivity uniquely suited to the battle space wherever we deploy,” said Deb Stanislawski, the OUSD (R&E) 5G Accelerate Use Director. “Utilizing AI to assist in optimizing 5G network management to support fueling operations is one of our experiments that utilizes relevant mission use cases that potentially can support real world functionality and military utility.”

The new system will provide data to three key groups: Fueling technicians will know which aircraft need service and what their priorities are; plane captains will know when fuel trucks will be available to service their aircraft so they can be present, without having to wait on the flight line; and base leadership will know that available resources are being used to keep missions on time.

“Those computers are going to be taking all of this new data we’ll be acquiring in real time through the 5G system and running that through an AI modeler to understand trends and what the specific needs and requirements will be for future refueling so they can pre-plan and optimize operations,” said Alvord.

The project is part of a larger initiative within R&E to expand the use of 5G technology throughout the Department of Defense.

“What 5G brings to this is decreased latency — the ability to get more data in real time — and increased bandwidth, which allows us to get all the data we need,” Alvord said.

The goal is for the new refueling system to be fully implemented at Whidbey no later than 2024 and to expand the system to other sites.

“We’re off to the races and getting great feedback,” Alvord said. “There’s a desire to expand not just to other fueling locations, but to apply what we’re doing to similar types of operations elsewhere in the DoD, where having quick access to large amounts of data and analytics will be useful.”

For more information, contact Michelle Gowdy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 404-407-8060.



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This article first appeared in the August, 2023 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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