Falls Church company sets drone endurance record

WASHINGTON — How long can a drone stay in the air? The record, at least for its class, is 56 hours — and a Falls Church company achieved it.

Vanilla Aircraft, a small unmanned aircraft developer, said the flight could have been twice that long.

The aviation company’s VA001 flight, planned as a 120-hour mission, was ended early because of forecasts of severe icing and range restrictions. But the drone landed with enough fuel on board for an additional 90 hours of flying, for a total of six days of flight, Vanilla Aircraft said.

Even so, the 56-hour flight was certified as a world-duration record for combustion-powered unmanned aerial vehicles in the 50 to 500 kilogram subclass, as witnessed by a representative from the National Aeronautic Association.

It was also the fourth-longest continuous flight for any unmanned airplane, and the 11th longest for an airplane of any type — manned or unmanned, solar or fuel-powered.

Development of the VA001 drone is being supported by investments from the Department of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office and DARPA-funded efforts through Naval Air System Command — Patuxent River.

The flight originated and ended at Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico and was completed Dec. 2.

“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 Lede, DARPA program manager.

“We are very pleased with what the Vanilla team has accomplished,” he said.

“The ability of a low-cost platform to provide persistent surveillance, battlefield pattern of life, or aerial mesh network relay in a responsive and robust manner and without forward basing, does not currently exist,” said Neil Boertlein, Vanilla Aircraft co-founder and chief engineer.

Vanilla Aircraft is also seeking partners and funding to develop the VA001 for commercial use, especially in agriculture.

Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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