After traveling for five days, one hour and 24 minutes for more than 7,000 miles, Vanilla Aircraft’s VA001 drone touched down at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Monday, completing what Vanilla Aircraft claims to be the longest unmanned internal combustion-powered flight in history.
The diesel-powered aircraft with a 36-foot wingspan landed with three days of fuel remaining on board, successfully meeting its goal of a five-day flight. Carrying multiple payloads, including a NASA-furnished multispectral imager and a Department of Defense-furnished sensor and radio, the drone showed the practical use of an ultra-endurance fuel aircraft with a logistics footprint a fraction of those required by other unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), says Vanilla Aircraft.
Designed, built and operated by Vanilla Aircraft LLC, a five-person start-up out of Falls Church, Va., the aircraft carries up to 1.1 cubic feet of payload, offers a 30-pound weight limit and provides 800 watts of power. The UAS is built to operate for up to 10 days at altitudes up to 15,000 feet with a dash speed of 75 knotsNASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and loiter speeds of around 55 knots.
This was the 10th flight of the aircraft, which executed a pilot-controlled takeoff Wednesday morning, Oct. 18, was switched to autopilot control, and quietly orbited above Wallops Island’s Virginia Space UAS Runway at 5,000 feet in a two-mile orbit. On Monday, Oct. 23, it made a successful autonomous landing back at NASA Wallops. The flight was completed under funding from the Office of Naval Research.
“As exciting as this milestone is, the flight itself was quite boring,” quips Neil Boertlein, chief engineer. “The plane did what it was designed to do and landed ready to go right back into the air again.”
The long-endurance capability of the drone makes it suitable for both military and commercial applications. This includes agricultural mapping, disaster zone imaging, cellular network and internet distribution, and infrastructure monitoring, says Vanilla Aircraft.
“Previous flights had already validated our performance predictions, but this flight really demonstrated the reliability and ease of operation that a low-cost persistent unmanned aircraft can obtain,” says Jeremy Novara, test director.
Tim Heely, CEO, adds, “We have begun to fully demonstrate the viability of this ultra-long-endurance aircraft system and are anxious to test new payloads and realize capabilities heretofore unimagined. We are excited to bring a new affordable, easily sustainable capability to the quickly expanding unmanned system environment.”
The company plans to begin further production in the coming months and is open to teaming with payload providers.