The Future Of Green Transportation Looks Extremely Fun
A super-quiet, hover-capable aircraft, NASA’s experimental Puffin is a single-passenger/pilot, personal aircraft designed by NASA aerospace engineer Mark Moore and his colleagues at NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Georgia Institute of Technology, the National Institute of Aerospace, and M-DOT Aerospace.
Named Puffin because, as Moore puts it, “if you’ve ever seen a puffin on the ground, it looks very awkward, with wings too small to fly, and that’s exactly what our vehicle looks like,” he explains. “But it’s also apparently called the most environmentally friendly bird, because it hides it’s poop, and we’re environmentally friendly because we have essentially no emissions. Also, puffins tend to live in solitude, only ever coming together on land to mate, and ours is a one-person vehicle.”
The Puffin is 12-foot (3.7 m) long, with a wingspan of 14.5-foot (4.4 m) wide. Propelled by two 7.5 ft (2.3 m) rotor disk, it is part plane, part helicopter and stands upright on the ground. The tail splits into four spring-loaded stabilizing legs and reveals the landing gear. This design supports a hard, forceful landing if necessary. As a pilot prepares to take off, flaps on the wings tilt to deflect air upward from the propeller rotors, keeping the plane on the ground until it was ready to fly and preventing errant gusts from tipping it over.
It lifts off like a helicopter, hovers and then leans forward to fly horizontally with the pilot lying down like in a hang-glider. Built with carbon-fiber composites makes it very lightweight – about 300 pounds (136 kg) empty weight, plus another 100 pounds (45 kg) of battery and 200 pounds (91 kg) for the pilot.
The Puffin is powered by electric motors for a total of 60 horsepower. Doesn’t sound like much get up and go, does it? Well, with up to 95% efficiency, electric motors are quieter, cleaner, lighter, and far more efficient than internal combustion engines, which only rate some 18 to 23%. Electric motors remain efficient regardless of their size, whereas internal combustion engines become less efficient the smaller they are. As such, electric aircraft can use small motors while generating impressive propulsion. That is why the Puffin can lift a person with just 60 horsepower. Electric aircraft are also much quieter than regular planes – at 500 ft (150 m), it is around 50 decibels, or about the volume of a conversation, making it approximately 10 times quieter than current low-noise helicopters.
The Puffin has no flight ceiling because it is not air-breathing like gas engines, and thus is not limited by thin air, so it could go up to about 30,000 ft (9,150 m) before its energy runs low enough to drive it to descend. Another one of it’s safety features is it’s ability to fail any two power-train components on either side and still produce the required power to hover. So, no need to worry about stalled Puffins falling out of the sky. It has a cruising speed of 150 mph (241 kph), or an all out sprint of nearly 300 mph (482 kph).
The range with current battery technology is about 50 miles (80 km), because of the current limitations of the rechargeable lithium phosphate batteries. But Moore expects to see a range of 240 to 320 kilometers by 2017, because battery researchers are proposing a tripling of current battery energy densities in the next five to seven years.
Scheduled through the end of June, a 1/3 size hover-capable Puffin demonstrator (completed in March), is undergoing test to investigate variables such as how well it transitions from cruise to hover flight.
Changing the way we fly the sky ….
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