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].

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Video: NASA

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