It’s not often something makes the news some eight months after it happened. But that’s the case with this story, which is about the longest yet flight of an unmanned aircraft in its class. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale – also known as the FAI, or The World Air Sports Federation – announced yesterday it had ratified a new world record for a flight that took place between November 30 and December 2 of 2016. It marks the longest duration flight of any UAV weighing between 50 and 500 kilograms.

The craft in question is a 12-metre wingspan, diesel-powered aircraft with a single pusher-type propellor. It’s called the VA001, made by Vanilla Aircraft of Virginia, and it looks a bit like a glider with a bulbous fuselage. It was launched by a tow line on November 30 of last year at New Mexico State University’s Unmanned Air Systems Flight Test Center. It landed on December 2, after 55 hours and 56 minutes of non-stop flight.

And you know what? They ended the flight due to forecasted severe icing. It could have gone much, much further.

“After flying non-stop for nearly two-and-a-half days, the VA001 successfully landed back where it had been launched from,” states the FAI site.

“It was then weighed to assess how much fuel it had used. Over the 56 hours it had consumed 36.72 litres (9.7 gallons) of fuel – an average of 0.655 litres an hour. It had also covered 6,033km, giving it a fuel economy of 164.3 km per litre, or 386.46 miles per gallon. Remarkably, there was enough fuel left onboard to fly a further 10,000km or 4.5 days.”

A time-lapse of the VA001 during its record-breaking flight. The craft flew a figure-eight pattern repeatedly. Image © Vanilla Aircraft LLC via http://www.vanillaaircraft.com/

In fact, Vanilla Aircraft says this model is built to fly for 10 days non-stop on a single load of fuel, meaning it could provide exceedingly long-range surveillance or data collection. It has a payload capacity of 13.6 kg (30 pounds) and cruises at 4572 meters (15,000 feet).

NEW SPARK FIRMWARE COMING

DJI has an important firmware update for its Spark, the $499 drone launched in May of this year. It’s the company’s first sub-$500 drone, and it not only has some of the intelligent flight features of its pricier siblings – it also responds to some hand gestures.

A new pilot gets to fly the Spark using hand gestures alone at the Toronto media launch. Photo by Scott Simmie/TDC

But there were some isolated issues.

A few reports (very few, when you consider this is a very popular drone) surfaced that the Spark, during some of its selfie modes, would keep on going. There were also about a dozen cases reported in forums where the Spark would shut off in mid-flight and fall to the ground.

At the time, late June, DJI issued the following statement:

“DJI is aware of a small number of reports involving Spark drones that have lost power mid-flight. Flight safety and product reliability are top priorities. Our engineers are thoroughly reviewing each customer case and working to address this matter urgently. DJI products are tested for thousands of hours, and the overwhelming number of customers enjoy using our products with minimal disruption.”

A few days ago, DJI announced that it had a new firmware update coming this week for the Spark. In a release, it stated the update would “further enhance flight safety and performance of the DJI Spark.

“The new firmware update enhances Spark’s battery management system to optimize power supply during flight. In addition, the new firmware has added support to fully integrate Spark with the DJI Goggles, optimized the PalmLaunch function for better stability after takeoff, improved the accuracy of controls under the QuickShot Dronie mode and enhanced the compatibility of the remote controller when syncing up with new firmware updates.”

The DJI Spark, with older siblings in background

So clear improvements, right? And – one assumes – a fix to whatever the other issues were.

But there’s a caveat. The DJI statement also included the following:

“If the firmware of either the aircraft or the battery is not updated by September 1, Spark will not be able to take off. DJI decided on the option of a mandatory firmware update in order to maximize flight safety and product reliability which we consider as top priorities.”

Some users online welcomed the move. Others did not.

“Someone needs to sue DJI for this action,” stated one person in a Facebook forum. “Imagine if a car dealer disabled your car because the oil change was past due???”

Huh?

That single post triggered some 34 replies, and counting. Many agreed DJI should not have the right to effectively ground the product, while others defended the company’s efforts to ensure the product was functioning safely and more effectively.

THE TDC VIEW

We don’t know how widespread problems with the Spark were. We do know that some people had trouble learning how to operate it (often because an in-app toggle was in the wrong position) and also because the Spark didn’t always recognize hand gestures quite as intelligently as it perhaps could have.

And, as stated, a small number of reports stated the craft could fall from the sky – or malfunction and drift away during a selfie or tracking mode. DJI took all of this stuff seriously and acted swiftly.

As a result, these issues have now presumably been fixed. F-I-X-E-D.

And that makes us wonder: Who would want to put their Spark at risk, even remotely, with this upgrade available? And why should DJI repair a damaged aircraft because an owner had failed to upgrade freely available firmware?

And really, that’s a large part of the issue here: Human nature. In the absence of a truly compelling reason to upgrade firmware, many people simply will not. They’ll just leave it, planning to eventually get around to it – or wait to read feedback from early adopters.

What people are failing to realize here is that, in some ways, this is the software equivalent of a hardware recall. The company is stating that for its product to fly as safely as possible it requires this modification. And because it’s a modification that owners routinely do anyway, it’s just adding a deadline and a bit of pressure.

The deadline gives DJI leverage, and helps ensure that Sparks fly to their maximum potential. So why not go ahead and do the upgrade?

Apparently, according to some, it’s a matter of principle. They *own* the aircraft and should be able to do what they want – or so some say.

Take our advice: Upgrade your firmware. Keep flying safely.

DJI is doing the right thing. And, we believe, so should you.