Vanilla Aircraft's Heely says more to come from long-duration VA001 aircraft



Vanilla Aircraft's VA001 UAS recently completed a historic flight, as it flew for a little over five days for a total of 121.4 hours.

After executing a pilot-controlled takeoff on Oct. 18 from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, the UAS switched to autopilot control and quietly orbited above Wallops Island's Virginia Space UAS Runway at 5,000 feet in a two-mile orbit.

After traversing 7,000 miles, the UAS landed more than five days later — with three days of fuel remaining on board — having completed what Vanilla Aircraft called the “longest flight for an ultra-long endurance unmanned aircraft system that has the capability of carrying a payload of significant size weight and power that can meet or exceed military and commercial requirements.”

Completed under funding from the Office of Naval Research, this flight, which was the aircraft’s tenth overall, was actually supposed to go longer than it did, according to Vanilla Aircraft CEO Tim Heely. Originally scheduled to fly for eight days, the aircraft had to land to avoid a line of severe thunderstorms.

Despite not reaching their eight-day goal, though, Heely and the Vanilla Aircraft team are supremely confident that the aircraft could have completed its flight, had the weather — the company’s main concern going into the flight — cooperated.

“We were happy we were able to complete a full five-day flight while disappointed we could not complete the eight-day flight as planned,” Heely tells AUVSI. “Our fuel usage tracked exactly along the predicted value, though, and we landed with three days of fuel on board, so we are confident we could have made the full eight days goal.”

For a flight of this length and magnitude, a lot of planning and preparation goes into just trying to get the aircraft into the air. To obtain an airworthiness certification for this flight, an in-depth review of the VA001 design, as well as previous flights by NASA Wallops personnel, were both required.

In total, the process took a little over a month of presentations, design review, clarification and answers to NASA's questions. Vanilla Aircraft also had several meetings to coordinate ground and air operations with flight facility and range personnel, to make sure that all parties were aware of, and satisfied with, Vanilla’s planned operations.

Heely also points out that the NASA Wallops Flight Facility was “intimately involved” with the planning of the flight, as it provided “invaluable assistance in putting the pieces together safely and efficiently.”

During the flight, Vanilla Aircraft monitored the aircraft using a ground station at the Virginia Space UAS Runway on Wallops Island, which provided constant contact, both visual and electronic. The NASA Wallops radar kept track of the aircraft, and Vanilla also had streaming video from its forward-facing tail camera.

After the ground pilot take off of the aircraft, the UAS flew and landed completely on autopilot, so Vanilla employees barely touched a button throughout the flight, except to bring the UAS back for landing.

The long endurance of the aircraft is largely a result of “brilliant design and integration work” by the company’s cofounders Daniel Hatfield, Neil Boertlein and Jeremy Novara, Heely says. The aircraft’s design is based on a sail plane design, and it is equipped with an ultra-dependable engine.

Powered by an efficient propulsion system, including a fuel-sipping heavy-fuel engine, and designed with a pusher prop configuration, the Vanilla Aircraft VA001 is capable of carrying payloads up to 1.1 cubic feet in volume, 30 pounds in weight and using one kilowatt of electrical power. Heely says the company is working with its sponsors now to test other payloads in other scenarios in the near future.

Its endurance provides the end-user with a “persistent capability for military and commercial applications.”

For the military, the aircraft’s payload bay can support a variety of militarized payloads like Electro-Optical and Infrared imagers, a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), and SIGINT systems, while commercially, the UAS can be used for mapping, emergency 4G cellular networks and airborne internet distribution.

Aside from its many potential uses, the UAS also has a simple design, which allows for lower maintenance costs, ultimately resulting in a lower operating cost, Heely says.

He says that affordability, “especially in the maintenance and logistics area,” was critical during the development of the UAS. Keeping the aircraft system itself affordable was a natural follow on, Heely adds.

The aircraft’s ability to stay in the air for long periods of time drastically lowers the amount of takeoffs and landings, effectively cutting down on events that shorten the life span of the aircraft, and lessen the effectivity of sensors and communications equipment.

“This aircraft will significantly reduce costs across the board,” Heely says.

That endurance was the main reason why Vanilla Aircraft took the top $15,000 prize at AUVSI’s Startup Showdown, held as part of the Xponential conference in 2016.

Since its first flight in February 2015, Vanilla Aircraft has learned a number of lessons, most of which involved “procedural issues involving takeoff and landing,” according to Heely.

The company has had to make very minor modifications to the aircraft, such as a stronger spring, and a slightly more rugged wheel, but Heely notes that the general aircraft design has remained untouched. More so than anything else, though, the flights have validated the aircraft and its abilities.

“This flight, along with the nine preceding flights, show this is a viable and reliable technology and brings this transformative capability to reality,” Heely said after the completion of the flight.

Heely says the company is “very anxious” to return to the air to “expand the flight envelope along with further missionization of other exciting payloads.”

There isn’t an exact time frame for when the VA001 will be available commercially, but Heely is hopeful that it will be available “very soon.” While he couldn’t provide exact names, Heely did say that he is “very happy with the number of entities and companies” that have followed Vanilla Aircraft, and expressed interest in its VA001 UAS.