Meet the "Puffin," NASA's One-Man Electric Plane

By Smriti Rao | January 20, 2010 6:13 pm

The one-man stealth plane of the future is on the horizon–and it’s named after a conspicuously cute bird. NASA scientists will officially unveil their design for a hover-capable, electric-powered aircraft, nicknamed “the Puffin,” on Wednesday at an American Helicopter Society meeting in San Francisco.

On the ground, the Puffin is designed to stand on its tail, which splits into four legs to help serve as landing gear. As it prepares to take off, flaps on the wings would tilt to deflect air from the 2.3-meter-wide propeller rotors upward, keeping the plane on the ground until it was ready to fly and preventing errant gusts from tipping it over. The Puffin would rise, hover and then lean over to fly horizontally, with the pilot lying prone as if in a [hang] glider [Scientific American].

The Puffin stands 12 feet high and has a wingspan of 13.5 feet. In theory it can cruise at 150 miles per hour and sprint at more like 300 miles per hour [Gizmodo]. The craft is electrically propelled and runs on rechargeable lithium phosphate batteries, which would theoretically allow it to soar as high as 30,000 feet before its batteries would begin to run low and it would be forced to descend. But scientists are confident that the Puffin’s range could be increased as batteries improve over the coming years.

The Puffin has the potential to revolutionize the way we transport ourselves from place to place. With its small engines, light weight, and battery power, it could provide a way for us to take to the skies as the streets get more clogged with cars. And this electric aircraft also has military applications. The Puffin is 10 times quieter than current low-noise helicopters, making it suitable for covert military operations. The electric motors are not just quiet and efficient, they also generate less heat–making them less likely to show up on thermal sensors and also requiring significantly less cooling air flowing over them. This reduced aerodynamic drag gives the Puffin a speed boost that aircraft with internal combustion engines don’t get.  

Researchers plan on finishing a one third-size, hover-capable Puffin demonstrator by March. But  Brien Seeley, president of an independent flight test agency that hosts the annual Electric Aircraft Symposium, says the designers still have work to do. Said Seeley: “In my opinion, a mass-marketable version will need conventional seating, cup holders and a short runway for glide-in, view-ahead landings—but opening up people’s imagination is the first essential step” [Scientific American].

Related Content:
80beats: A Chitty Chitty Bang Bang For Everyone! New Flying Car Takes to the Sky
DISCOVER: Light Flight
DISCOVER: Who’s Flying This Thing?
DISCOVER: How to be a NASA Mission Controller
DISCOVER: Have Scramjet, Will Travel

Video: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Technology
MORE ABOUT: aviation, flight, NASA, Puffin
  • bigjohn756

    “…it could provide a way for us to take to the skies as the streets get more clogged with cars.”

    Yeah, sure. Come on most people aren’t even competent drivers and this guy thinks it would be good to have the air filled with texting pilots? Ha!

  • Jeff Wise

    It’s hard to overstate how non-real this is. This concept is just so implausible that it doesn’t even bear going into.

  • Karl

    Seems uncomfortable, laying down the entire time in that cabin. Makes me claustrophobic just thinking about it.

  • Ralph

    follow the money….
    the concept of people”taking to the skies” is comic book thinking.
    flying cars etc …just will never happen.
    If the $100 million keeps the concept alive for a life time of planning, what better way to spend an interesting life

  • Eric

    You know what? There are already thousands of small aircraft flying in our skies on an antiquated flight network and they’re probably all sending text messages before landing. NASA has already demonstrated, with great success, a new flight system that will allow for a much more automated autonomous flight experience. (look up SATS: Small Airplane Transportation System). If we mate these new milestones in aviation and electrical engine technology with new flight networks we really can experience the joy of flight like never before. My great aunt, Eileen, god rest her soul, told me that when she first saw her first airplane as a child she never dared to imagine that someday she would actually fly in one. The skeptics here have backed themselves into the same corner as the FAA, letting their pre-determined notions stagnate progress, thereby preventing economic growth – a threat to our national security. Shame on all of you.

  • Michael Brennan-Perez

    My only “skepticism” concerning this recent development in personal flight regards the ideology of people like Eric, whose own pre-determined notions of “progress” and “economic growth,” continues to drive decisions among leveraged business interests intent on pursuing narrow agendas contributing to environmental degradation. Without a biologically sustainable environment there is no point in national security.

  • John Moore

    From what I’ve read about the new systems are pretty anti-crash oriented. I too had reservations about a bunch of witless folks who can’t navigate a city map much less plan a flight plan. The vehicle that first got my attention was something very similar to this and has several “fail safes” built in to prevent someone from flying erratically, running out of fuel/energy and then crashing, etc. The system they are reffering to establishes 3-d “tunnels” demarked for travel in various directions at various speeds so you wouldn’t have everybody flying in everydirection.

  • Leo

    Problem seems to be the speed: so wide rotors would produce big thrust and if this helicraft is intended to really substitute cars, how many training hours to be an average driver?
    If rotors are oriented in the direction driver wants to go, what will be the minimum speed to allow wings sustain the weight?
    Anyway: how many chances to survive in case of air crash with another one or in case of land crash, due to high minimum speed?

    Why not make the rotors remain oriented through sky, allowing the craft to hover or to gently and slowly slide horizontally in the air, at 2-3 km/h? This will make long flights more confortable (pilot remains in erected position instead of lying) and lower speed (until zero, if pilot needs to hover) will decrease damages in case of crash.

  • WKRP Turkey drop

    Eric forgot his meds.

    Price point is everything. If they can get the price down to 60k I’d get one (after the bank heist). As for wreckless drivers, a little bit of Social Darwinism is just the ticket for our diminished gene pool. Now if I could just get my hands on Judy Jetson! She’s 19, right?

  • Brian Too

    I have to say I’m pretty down on this concept too. There are flaws in the whole design that are glaring.

    1). Batteries are heavy and do not have very high energy densities as a rule. This is tolerable in a land vehicle, but an aircraft? Weight is everything in aviation design!

    2). “…range could be increased as batteries improve over the coming years…” Batteries have been stuck in neutral for a long, long, LONG time! The only way they’ve gotten better is by commercial scale implementations of designs that were already known about for years. Plus, batteries have all kinds of weird usage requirements otherwise you ruin their energy storage capability. Batteries really haven’t gotten much better and it seems a vain hope to suggest that suddenly they will.

    3). VTOL aircraft have safety problems. It’s an unavoidable side-effect of their design. Just take a look at the safety record of the Harrier, the Osprey, and numerous experimental vehicles. While in hover mode these vehicles have almost no safety margin and they are very touchy about the transition from hover to flight (and back again).

  • Dave

    I think people should lay off Eric, as it seems that he’d rather have a positive outlook on things rather than a negative view. Poeple who are willing to stretch what they know as impossible often are the ones who change what we consider possible. Such as the Wright Bros.

    I like the planes concept, but I see a barrier as far as the human element goes. I see government/law issues, and plenty of opposition to the idea…

  • Mark

    In the human process of continuous self-reflection, for photovoltaic power generation that was so clean and direct forms of energy have become more cordial, not only in space applications, in many areas also show off their capabilities.

  • http://discover Arsenio

    A terrorist’s dream vehicle. Also look for China to steal the vehicle concept and market it for less, and saying they invented it with superior communist know-how.

  • Michael

    Although I washed out of the army warrant officer pilot program in late 1964 after seven months, I have a decades long fascination with aviation. When I was around nine in 1951 I recall a cover of Popular Science or Mechanics with a commuter getting ready to fly to work in his personal helicopter. If the Puffin ever became available at a reasonable price I would try it out! I think Arsenio has a point–the Chinese will probably steal the concept and market it for less! One of many things I liked about Avatar was the advanced helicopter gunships besides showing the quasi-flying dinosaurs (pterosaurs) taking off without having to run off a cliff, as was the prevailing opinion among ‘dinosaur’ authorities for decades.

  • steve

    As the navy found out the problem will tail sitting aircraft is that the pilot can’t see to land it. That’s why they never made it past the proto-type stage.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar