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Small unmanned airplane sets world endurance record

05 January 2017

A DARPA funded business broke the record for long-endurance flying by launching a novel combustion-powered unmanned aircraft that remained airborne for two days.

The Vanilla Aircraft VA001, a small diesel-powered airplane under development through DARPA (left), flew for 56 hours recently over Las Cruces, New Mexico (right), setting a new world record for flight duration for its weight class. (Credit: DARPA)

Current designs of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offer limited range and flight endurance. They also need frequent refuelling and regular maintenance which limits them from flying to far. 

This newly designed aircraft was built by Vanilla Aircraft of Falls Church, Virginia. The propeller-driven VA001 is designed to carry a 13.7kg payload at 15,000ft for up to 10 days without refuelling. 

The VA001’s flight started on November 30 2016 and for nearly 56 hours the plane flew at an altitude of 6,500-7,500ft above sea level, averaging 57 knots before it landed on December 2 2016. It landed safely with more than half of its fuel still on-board, suggesting it’s capable of setting additional records for powered flight in its weight and power class. 

A representative from the National Aeronautic Association certified the flight as achieving the world duration record for combustion-powered UAVs in the 50-500kg subclass (FAI Class U-1.c Group 1). Moreover, the flight was the fourth longest for any unmanned airplane and the 11th longest for an airplane of any type (manned or unmanned, solar or fuel-powered).

“This record-breaking flight demonstrated the feasibility of designing a low-cost UAV able to take off from one side of a continent, fly to the other, perform its duties for a week, and come back - all on the same tank of fuel,” said Jean-Charles Ledé, DARPA program manager. “This capability would help extend the footprint of small units by providing scalable, persistent UAV-based communications and ISR coverage without forward basing, thereby reducing personnel and operating costs.”

More information can be found on the DARPA website.

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