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Aircraft gets personal with NASA's Puffin

/ Source: Discovery Channel

What takes off like a helicopter, flies like an airplane and makes about as much noise as an electric car?

Why that would be a Puffin, a prototype one-person aircraft that is part of a broader NASA initiative to develop technologies for personal air travel.

No one has ridden inside a Puffin as yet. Right now, it's a subscale model without a body or tails. But the electric-powered vehicle already has aced one of its most difficult goals: quiet flight.

"It's a 10 times reduction in noise from the quietest helicopters today," said Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

That's important if personal air vehicles are ever going to bridge the gap between commercial air transport and the family car.

"It's inevitable that someday more and more people will take to the air in on-demand vehicles," Moore told Discovery News. "It will happen. There's just no other way to achieve fast, on-demand, high-speed travel."

The idea is to develop an air-based transport system that doesn't require people to drive long distances to airports to board planes for relatively short flights.

"We're not trying to replace the car or the airplane," Moore said. "Cars are great at what they do, which is go a couple of miles at relatively slow speeds. Commercial air carriers are great at going long distances at faster speeds. But what happens when we want to go 100 or 200 or 300 miles? We have to take this very long drive."

"There is a huge gaping hole in our transportation system," Moore added. "We're trying to come up with another alternative."

The Puffin, named because it resembles the bird, has not yet flown publicly, but Moore said its longest flight lasted five minutes.

"The intent is not to be a viable product. NASA doesn't develop products; we develop new technologies that can provide industry with the ability to generate new products," Moore said.

"It's a very exciting vehicle that brings together a whole bunch of technologies," added Brian Seeley, who heads the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Foundation, hosts of a NASA prize competition for fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly aircraft.

NASA has spent about $500,000 on the Puffin, which was developed in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the National Institute of Aerospace and M-DOT Aerospace.

The vehicle was unveiled at a helicopter trade organization meeting in January.