Puffin: the one-person electric aircraft (w/ Video)

January 22, 2010 by Lin Edwards report

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA engineers have designed an extremely quiet one-person electrically powered aircraft that can hover like a helicopter and fly like a plane. The “Puffin” launches from an upright position with the tail split into four legs that serve as stable landing/take-off gear.

The 3.7-meter-long craft has two wings with a combined wingspan of 4.1 meters. Each wing is has a 2.3 meter wide propeller. Flaps on the wings direct the air from the rotors upward while the is on the ground, and then direct it downwards allowing the Puffin to rise, and then hover as it leans over to begin its flight with the craft (and pilot) horizontal.

The aircraft was designed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in collaboration with the National Institute of Aerospace, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and M-DOT Aerospace. It is designed to be manufactured from carbon fiber composites and would weigh only around 135 kg, plus 45 kg of rechargeable lithium phosphate batteries.

The Puffin’s electric motors produce virtually no emissions, and can lift its payload of one person with only 60 horsepower. The motors are up to 95% efficient, while internal combustion engines the same size would only rate at around 20% efficient, and electric motors are up to 20 times more reliable than piston engines because they have fewer moving parts.

The electric motors are also super-quiet, producing only 50 decibels at 150 meters, which makes the Puffin about 10 times less noisy than even low-noise helicopters. This may mean that if the Puffin is used for personal travel or courier services, an airport may not be needed at all, and the Puffin could land and take off from a private residence without annoying neighbors. The motors are not only quiet, they generate less heat than internal combustion engines, and the combination could make the craft ideal for military applications such as covert spying operations.

The cruising speed of the Puffin is expected to be 240 kph, with spurts of 480 kph possible. The engine does not require air, which means its flight capabilities are not limited by thin air, and it could fly as high as 9,150 meters. With a full charge, the batteries could keep the plane aloft for only 80 kilometers at cruising speed, but as new batteries are developed this is likely to increase substantially, perhaps to over 300 kilometers by 2017.

Safety features in the Puffin include a motor design that allows parts of either motor to fail with no reduction in power to the propellers. It is also designed to be able to take a hard, forceful landing with most of the load taken by the landing gear, instead of the pilot as it is in other single person aircraft designs.

The device was dubbed the Puffin because the bird of that name resembles the craft in looking awkward, and in seeming to have wings too small to fly. It’s also a solitary bird, and its habit of hiding its droppings makes it environmentally friendly, like the craft.

The design of the Puffin was unveiled on January 20 by aerospace engineer Mark Moore, at a meeting of the American Helicopter Society in San Francisco. A one-third scale demonstration model is expected to be finished by March this year, after which time they will concentrate on the transition between cruise flight and hovering.

Moore said they are already planning future generations of the , in which there would be enough redundancy that if one propeller was completely out of action the aircraft could still fly safely, and there would be no single point of failure.

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4.4 / 5 (5) Jan 22, 2010
This article is frustratingly sparse on some info I'd really like to have, but I guess if they haven't even built a full sized prototype yet that's to be expected...

Still, when can I get one, and what will I have to do to let the FAA let me fly it?
5 / 5 (4) Jan 22, 2010
A parachute system would also make this thing more safe. I see it as having more chances of running out of power, because of human error, than having a mechanical failure.
4.3 / 5 (4) Jan 22, 2010
and the Puffin could land and take off from a private residence without annoying neighbors

And if a large number of people had them, air traffic control would be a nightmare.
4 / 5 (5) Jan 22, 2010
Actually air traffic control could be solved the same way it's done elsewhere: called freeflight and using a lot of on-board systems like anti-collision radar and position systems (gps and others) to know where are others around you.
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 22, 2010
I'm looking at the illustration, and I'm seeing some strange things. Where are the batteries? Is this proposal based on an as-yet non-existent new low-mass battery technology? Is efficient flight possible with wings that small? I think not. One look at the Osprey will tells that this electric aircraft will never fly. Please let's not invest any money, private or public, in such a hare-brained idea.
4.5 / 5 (4) Jan 22, 2010
Air traffic control would likely be centralized. You just plug in where you want to go and the autopilot cuts in.

The engine does not require air, which means its flight capabilities are not limited by thin air

This is not fully correct. As air thins the rotor blades get less effective.

Apart from the electric motors it reminds me a lot of the WWII concept airplaine "Lerche" by Heinkel
4.3 / 5 (3) Jan 22, 2010
and there would be no single point of failure.

There will always be a single point of failure: the pilot.

Lying in prone position for extended periods of time is not comfortable. I'm kind of amazed that they would develop an aircraft that requires it.
not rated yet Jan 22, 2010
Another tech design catches up with 1980's Manga/Japanimation vision.
4 / 5 (2) Jan 22, 2010
this looks ridiculous but what do i know.....i KNOW ONE THING...the electric revolution will completely up-end the auto parts industry. which has already been bankrupted and refinanced numerous times. ......why?????

"""electric motors are up to 20 times more reliable than piston engines because they have fewer moving parts""""" this applies equally to cars as it does airplane engines. a piston is a piston is a vibrating machine waiting to break.
3 / 5 (3) Jan 22, 2010
"And if a large number of people had them, air traffic control would be a nightmare."

Commuters would have to learn to fly in flocks!
not rated yet Jan 23, 2010
I wonder how well this design would scale up. Could they make one twice the size with maybe pivoting seats?

"Is efficient flight possible with wings that small? I think not."

Well, that's one of the questions the scaled prototype will help answer, but "I think not" sounds pretty premature. It's a wings swept forward design, which means air is channeled towards the fuselage, adding a lot of lift.

As for air traffic control, I wouldn't want something like this flying anywhere without full computer control. You climb inside, tell Mr. Computer where you want to go, then have a nice nap along the way.

Otherwise, nice toy, but keep 'em out of my neighborhood. 50dB at 150 meters? That's not the problem. The problem is the huge whoosh of air and the impromptu trimming of my elm tree if Buck Rogers gets a little squirrelly.
2 / 5 (3) Jan 24, 2010
First question would be why NASA is spending our tax dollars developing an individual transport airplane, second question would be...see first question. WTF?
Jan 24, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Jan 24, 2010
A sling such as hang gliders use would relieve the uncomfortable prone position.
The craft, if successful, would be much more than a "personal consumer aircraft". Police and military would be one obvious application, as well as, search and rescue, traffic monitoring and etc. With the increase in capacity and decreasing wieght of batteries their applications will expand.
not rated yet Jan 24, 2010
"Is efficient flight possible with wings that small? I think not."
It's essentially a helicopter, it has two rotary wings.
The fins on the back are for stability in flight and direction control.
As speed drops the fins would lose lift and the plane would assume a vertical posture for landing.
A very neat package with the right electronics and ideal for commuting or courier work but perhaps less ideal for serious people movement.
Jan 24, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Jan 25, 2010
Great concept although it has a certain "too good to be true" feel to it, I need to see the prototype to be convinved it will work.

Transitions between vertical and horizontal flight proved to be quite challenging in other similar designs.

Wind may also be a problem for such a light aircraft.
not rated yet Jan 25, 2010
Obviously, the reason NASA developed this compact flying vehicle is to be able commute to some of those interesting anomalous sites on Mars which suggest that some race of non-indigenous explorers in the past have exploited the planet's mineral potential and constructed elaborate mining operations. For example: http://alderaan.a...t;Candor Chasma"&fq=instrument_id:"moc-na"&start=70. Study image AB-1-084/05. The terrain is too hazardous for an up-close landing. Slight modifications to the craft's design, such as a longer wingspan and larger rotors would make this vehicle perfect for the job.

not rated yet Jan 25, 2010
Some changes, please:
1. Ducted Fans - this will increase thrust and provide pilot protection in crowded areas (forest, parking lots), and in case it tips over on landing
2. Folding wings - easily done, more lift
3. Rotating pilot compartment - vertical in hover mode, sitting position when flying horizontally
4. Advanced controls - collective and joystick can be about 1.5 feet apart in hover mode, expanding to 2.5 feet in horizontal mode, which would also unfold the wings (think screw drive, like a garage door opener). Stretching out the legs into standing mode lowers the landing gear, pulling up the legs into sitting position raises them. Opening the knees opens the tail booms, bringing the knees closer together brings the tail booms together. Foot pedals would function the same as in a plane. If you think about it, all these motions are natural and intuitive, reducing the pilot's workload.
not rated yet Jan 25, 2010
Facinating isn't it?

How about battery packs on internal slide rails?
Slide towards the tail to trim for landing and towards the nose to lift the tail for horisontal flight.
Might as well put that weight to good use!
not rated yet Jan 25, 2010
One thing that does need explaining, how do you get into it?
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
fixer - develop an interest in aeronautics. We are all so "into it".
not rated yet Jan 26, 2010
Or "out of it"!
Seriously though, you wouldn't rest a ladder against it, Perhaps an extendable bridge you can climb onto.
But getting out of a vertical cylinder isn't easy, no room to lift the legs to climb and internal fittings to damage when you step on them.
It is an interesting concept though, I wouldn't write it off so early.
not rated yet Jan 30, 2010
And if a large number of people had them, air traffic control would be a nightmare.

Think of a large metropolitan area at rush hour. Half a million puffins coming from thousands of different directions all going to different backyards or work places. All within the limited air space of the metro area. Sounds like mass confusion to me.
not rated yet Jan 31, 2010
Range is too short. Need at least 300 NM. Need to know how to charge it and how long it takes. Since the large cities are off limits to aircraft these aircraft will be off limits also.

Pilot access is via split chassis with small dropstep (from inside).

I suggest the following: www.samsonmotors.com

With the switchblade concept, fly to a nearby small city airport and then drive to work. If the weather is rotten, drive the whole way.
not rated yet Jan 31, 2010
Helicopters fly in and out of cities all the time, a better idea is a local helipad/storage facility on a light rail link to keep cars out of the city altogether.
not rated yet Mar 17, 2010
Is no, won't, can't the only ideology here.
Unless there are time traveler among you
never say never.

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