Magpie Aviation says it has successfully demonstrated the world’s first automated aircraft tug, or “aerotow,” connecting two airplanes mid-flight. In theory, the company says the aerotowing concept could enable large electric passenger airplanes to fly farther by connecting with smaller, uncrewed airplanes packed full of batteries.
With Magpie’s concept, an autonomous tow aircraft would grapple a passenger airplane’s nose with an “active hook” before tugging it along through the atmosphere. While the airplane is being towed, it can idle to preserve power, providing passengers with a “smooth and quiet” ride, Magpie claims. For longer flights, multiple tow aircraft could take turns escorting the passenger airplane, taking off from different airports along the way.
According to Magpie, its aerotowing approach is the most cost-effective way to fly large electric airplanes over long distances with zero emissions. Due to limitations of the battery technology available today, new electric commuter airplanes will be limited to flying a small number of passengers over short distances. Magpie’s concept offers a workaround to the battery conundrum, giving electric airplanes more range without compromising on payload capacity.
During Magpie's first flight test, which happened in March and was publicly revealed on April 24, test pilots flew Magpie’s two prototype aircraft from the company’s flight test facility in California and successfully connected using the active hook. “The device performed beautifully, connecting the two aircraft repeatedly, and with centimeter-level precision,” Magpie wrote in an update on the company’s website.
“The automated connection technology makes life simpler for the pilot,” said Magpie test pilot and U.S. Air Force veteran Jim Payne. “Connecting to the stabilized active hook is much easier than ‘probe-and-drogue’ aerial refueling used in the military, which requires a considerable amount of pilot skill.”