Tucked away in a nondescript brick building off Lee Highway in Falls Church, Vanilla Aircraft may be easy to miss. But while their office may be unremarkable, the five-man team on the inside is breaking flight records and reimagining the limits of unmanned aircraft.
Last month on December 2, Vanilla Aircraft’s VA001 drone completed a 56-hour flight without refueling, breaking the world record for its class. A representative from the National Aeronautic Association was present to witness the record.
The aircraft, which took off and landed in Las Cruces, New Mexico, actually had enough fuel for 120 hours but the mission was cut short because of inclement weather, suggesting the Falls Church company may soon break its own record.
Even with the disturbance from Mother Nature, the flight was the fourth-longest for any unmanned airplane and the 11th-longest for an airplane of any type, according to the National Aeronautic Association.
Co-founder Jeremy Novara said that this mission, however, was about more than just getting Vanilla Aircraft in the record books.
“We have been cognizant of what the records are but that’s definitely not what we’ve designed to do,” Novara said in a recent interview with the News-Press. “We thought that there was a lot of potential utility for a long endurance drone like this.”
Novara, along with colleagues Neil Boertlein and Daniel Hatfield, founded Vanilla Aircraft in 2009. After years in the industry seeing ideas left on the cutting room floor, the three decided it was time to see if they could do it themselves.
The VA001 is that dream realized.
What sets this aircraft apart from its competition is its combination of speed and endurance. “This aircraft can do things that other aircraft cannot,” Novara said. “We can get to a long distance away, stay there for a long time and come back.”
The flight was supported by the technology innovation investments from the Department of Defense’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office and DARPA-funded efforts through Naval Air System Command — Patuxent River. While much of their funding came from the defense industry, Vanilla Aircraft sees the drone’s utility as a potential game-changer in the science and commercial realms, as well.
For example, the original research and development contract Vanilla Aircraft had from NASA, Novara explained, had a goal of taking off from New Zealand or Chile and flying over Antarctica in order to map ice elevations over time.
Normally, this mission would be difficult because Antarctica is so far away most aircraft wouldn’t have enough fuel to fly there and hover long enough to get adequate data. The VA001 has the capacity to get there, stay a while to collect data, and still have enough fuel for a return trip.
On the commercial side, Boertlein said he envisions the aircraft being used to map all the cornfields in Kansas, for instance, at a much cheaper cost than a drone that has to repeatedly land and take off again. This low cost efficiency makes it highly attractive to potential buyers.
“A lot of the cost of operating the drone system is in the manpower of launching it, recovering it and doing maintenance on it,” Boertlein said. “So if you can do a longer flight, you reduce your cost per hour dramatically. So that, combined with not having to put the people wherever you have the camera, gives a lot of logistical benefit both in science and in military and commercial applications.”
The December flight was a landmark mission for the Vanilla Aircraft team and the latest step on the path towards a finished product.
Bortlein and Novara said the plan is to attempt the full five-day flight again, as originally planned, sometime this spring. The team believes they have “more or less successfully demonstrated the prototype is working as planned,” according to Novara, and that steps are now being taken to ramp up to an initial production version.
Vanilla Aircraft’s office may be unspectacular, but their innovative work has made them impossible to miss.
“I think we’re a shining example,” Novara said, “of what a small, multi-talented team can accomplish in the right environment.”