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Diesel-powered drone remains in flight for a record five days

Vanilla Aircraft‘s VA001 36-ft wingspan, diesel-powered drone has broken the world record for longest unmanned internal combustion-powered flight in history — with an epic voyage of five days, one hour, and 24 minutes.

Spanning more than 7,000 miles, the aircraft’s record-breaking flight saw it take off from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, controlled by a pilot, before switching to autopilot control, orbiting above Wallops Island’s Virginia Space UAS Runway at 5,000 feet in a 2-mile circle, and ultimately making a successful autonomous landing back at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The flight was carried out with funding from the Office of Naval Research.

“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,” Tim Heely, CEO of Vanilla Aircraft, said in a statement. “We are excited to bring a new affordable, easily sustainable capability to the quickly expanding Unmanned System environment.”

Vanilla Aircraft’s VA001 unmanned aerial vehicle carried multiple payloads during the journey, including a multispectral imager belonging to NASA, as well as a sensor and radio belonging to the United States Department of Defense.

The purpose of the vehicle is to act as a generic aircraft which could be customized to fit a wide range of purposes, and to carry an assortment of payloads. Alongside military use cases, possible commercial applications could include mapping for agriculture, disaster zone imaging, cellular network and internet distribution, and infrastructure monitoring. Future test flights are already being planned to show off the aircraft’s ability to convey an assortment of both classified and unclassified payloads, including electro-optical and infrared imagers, synthetic aperture radar, SIGINT systems, and communications nodes, among others.

What was the most impressive feat of all for the aircraft in its recent flight? Despite breaking the longest unmanned internal combustion-powered flight record, when it touched back down on solid ground it had three days’ worth of fuel remaining on board. For any potential rivals lurking in the wings, that suggests that Vanilla Aircraft has another potential record-busting flight well within reach.

Now if only we could get flight times anywhere close to this good on smaller, commercially available drones …

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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