A recent and remarkable test flight passed quietly into the annals of newly established world records with little fanfare except among some sectors of the aviation industry. The VA001 unmanned aircraft system, which was designed and built by Vanilla Aircraft, LLC, took off from New Mexico State University’s Unmanned Air Systems Flight Test Center and flew non-stop without refueling for 56 hours (more than 2 days and 2 nights) in late 2016. The aircraft’s record-shattering flight ended when it landed with adequate diesel fuel remaining for another six days (90 additional hours) of flying. The VA001’s flight originally was proposed to last for 120 hours, but had to be shortened because of expected severe icing and limited range at Los Cruces International Airport.
A National Aeronautic Association representative was present for the flight and verified that the VA001 set a new world record for the longest-lasting flight of a combustion-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in its weight range (110 to 1,102 pounds or 50 to 500 kilograms). In addition, it was the fourth-longest flight on record for an unmanned airplane, as well as the eleventh longest flight for any kind of airplane. The VA001 aircraft features a propeller-driven, fixed-wing design, with a wingspan of 36 feet. It achieves takeoff being towed by a truck and operates off a 4-cycle engine and pusher propeller. During its historic record-setting flight, the plane flew at between 6,500 and 7,500 feet above mean sea level (msl), averaging a speed of 57 knots. It carried 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of real and simulated payloads. The ultimate design objective is for the VA001 to carry 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) of payload for 10 days at an average altitude of 15,000 feet msl.
The Department of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) and U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), through the Naval Air System Command (NAVAIR), supported Vanilla Aircraft through various technology investments. The VA001 carried a relay provided by NAVAIR that functioned throughout the flight to exhibit its functionality at the greatest range. It also carried a multispectral imaging payload from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to illustrate the capabilities for Earth science and remote sensing for agricultural applications. In recent years, small and mid-sized UAVs have become more and more important for various military operations as a means to provide communications or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance abilities. However, these aircraft are limited in their range and in their length of flight. They must be refueled often and need both special launch and recovery equipment and frequent maintenance, which prohibits their usage for many potential military operations. The VA001 was designed precisely to overcome these disadvantages, thus allowing it to be employed for military missions that have not been feasible in the past. It is intended to be a scalable and low-cost method for conducting aerial operations, but without requiring additional personnel or operational costs.
Although the VA001 has tremendous potential for military operations and was designed to meet that purpose, Vanilla Aircraft also had much more in mind for this aircraft during its design and construction. Vanilla Aircraft identified a gap that exists in the market for commercial drones, between larger unmanned aircraft for military usage and smaller electric drones. The VA001 also was designed to address this gap for certain commercial applications, especially those related to agriculture. For example, the aircraft could provide an efficient and low-cost means of surveying both for widespread surveys and for more common, lower-intensity surveys. Monitoring vegetation and ground cover, conducting counts of animal populations, or surveying for insect damage in crops are a few possible agricultural uses for aircraft such as the VA001.
Despite the VA001’s intended design for military applications, the fact that Vanilla Aircraft also focused its design on commercial agricultural purposes highlights the importance of commercial aviation in today’s hectic world. And although many people envision the big airline companies when they think of commercial aviation, there’s an ever-increasing market for the smaller-scale, more personal capabilities of commercial aircraft.
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