Vanilla Aircraft's VA001 unmanned aircraft successfully completes five-day flight
After five days, one hour twenty-four minutes, and traversing more than 7000 miles, Vanilla Aircraft's VA001 touched down at NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, successfully completing what is being reported as the longest unmanned internal combustion powered flight in history. The 36-ft (11-m) wingspan, diesel-powered aircraft 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 DoD-furnished sensor and radio, this flight showed the practical use of an ultra-endurance heavy fuel aircraft.
Developed and operated by a five-person startup out of Falls Church, VA, the aircraft carries up to 1.1 ft3 (0.03 m3) of payload, with a 30 lb (13.6 kg) weight limit and provides 800 W of power. Built to operate for up to ten days at altitudes up to 15,000 ft (4572 m) with a dash speed of 75 knots (139 km/h; 86 mph) and loiter speeds of around 55 knots (102 km/h; 63 mph), the VA001 is designed to enable users to devise many missions capitalizing on its open design.
This was the tenth flight of the aircraft, which was intended to show the potential of its affordability and design. The aircraft executed a pilot-controlled takeoff Wednesday morning, October 18, was switched to autopilot control, and quietly orbited above Wallops Island's Virginia Space UAS Runway at 5000 ft (1524 m) in a 2-mi (3.2-km) orbit, maintaining the flight path to be flown with another soon-to-be-installed camera system. On Monday, October 23, it made a successful autonomous landing back at NASA Wallops. The flight was completed under funding from the Office of Naval Research.
The endurance capability of the VA001 will reportedly allow persistent operations for both commercial and military applications. It is expected that additional flights will demonstrate the capability to carry classified and unclassified payloads, including electro-optical and infrared imagers, synthetic aperture radar, SIGINT systems, and communications nodes. Likely commercial applications include agricultural mapping, disaster zone imaging, cellular network and internet distribution, and infrastructure monitoring.
Chief Engineer Neil Boertlein said, "As exciting as this milestone is, the flight itself was quite boring. The plane did what it was designed to do and landed ready to go right back into the air again."
Test Director Jeremy Novara added, "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."
Tim Heely, CEO, stated, "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 production in the coming months and is open to teaming with payload providers.