UAS claims world record for nonstop unrefueled flight

FALLS CHURCH, Va. Vanilla Aircraft -- a joint business effort backed by DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and NAVAIR [U.S. Naval Air System Command] -- announced that its VA001 unmanned aircraft system (UAS) recently completed a nonstop, unrefueled, 56-hour flight. The flight was submitted for a world duration record for combustion-powered unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the 50- to 500-kg subclass; a representative from the National Aeronautic Association was present to witness and verify the record.

The flight, originally planned as a 120-hour mission, was terminated after only 56 hours due to forecasted severe icing and range restrictions. Even with the shortened flight, however, the landed with enough JP-8 diesel fuel on board for an additional 90 hours of flying, or enough for a total of six days aloft. The propeller-driven VA001 is designed to carry a 30-pound payload at 15,000 feet for up to 10 days without refueling. The flight, which originated and ended at Las Cruces (New Mexico) International Airport, was conducted under the FAA-designated authority of the New Mexico State University UAS test site.

“This record-breaking flight demonstrated the feasibility of designing a low-cost 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. “This capability would help extend the footprint of small units by providing scalable, persistent UAV-based communications and [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] coverage without forward basing, thereby reducing personnel and operating costs."

Photo of VA-001 UAS and long-exposure photo of flight path courtesy DARPA.

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