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NASA flying-car man designs electric VTOL podcraft

'Puffin' tailsitter offers just 6 minutes' hover, though

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A NASA engineer long obsessed with flying cars has produced a concept design for a one-man, electrically powered helicopter/plane/glider podcraft. However the work was done largely without backing from NASA, and designer Mark Moore admits that battery technology must improve massively before the design becomes practical.

Moore, employed at NASA's Langley research centre in Virginia, is working on the "Puffin" aircraft - so dubbed because both are environmentally friendly and both look as though they can't fly* - with various partner organisations: MIT, Georgia tech, the US National Institute of Aerospace and private firm M-DOT.

Moore has long been a zealot in the cause of Personal Air Vehicles (PAVs, aircraft for everyman - essentially flying cars). He was formerly in charge of an actual NASA PAV project, which had a budget of $10m and was planned to produce a demonstrator "Tailfan" aircraft by last year.

The Tailfan would have been basically a light plane, but powered by a silenced car engine and fitted with a silenced ducted fan rather than a noisy propeller. The quiet Tailfan would have been capable of operating to and from from small airstrip-laybys in residential areas, and with the addition of modern robo-autopilot/air-traffic equipment (and perhaps the ability to drive on roads like the Terrafugia Transition) might have turned into a true PAV in time.

In the event, bosses at Langley "redirected funding" and terminated NASA's PAV activities in 2005. There was a NASA-funded tech prize, the PAV Challenge, but that was subsequently rebranded the "General Aviation Technology Challenge" and has now become the "Green Flight Challenge" - seeking aircraft which are low-carbon rather than ones which anybody could use.

But Moore evidently doesn't give up easily, because here he is back again with the Puffin. The aircraft's cunning landing-gear/tail, cleverly designed wing flaps and fiendish use of the many excellences of electric motors should allow it to operate somewhat like the "Tailsitter" prototypes of yesteryear, as opposed to today's Osprey tiltrotor. Rather than the rotors tilting and fuselage maintaining attitude, the whole lot will tip over into forward flight after making a vertical takeoff; and tip back again for landing to set down on its tail.

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