NASA drone takes off like a helicopter, flies like a plane

NASA's GL-10 'Greased Lightning' drone has 10 rotors that allow it to take off and land vertically. The Greased Lightning's wings rotate in flight so the drone can fly like an airplane.

A new prototype aircraft being tested at NASA’s Langley Research Center isn’t quite an airplane, and it isn’t quite a helicopter. The GL-10 Greased Lightning’s 10-foot wingspan is topped with 10 rotors – four on each wing, and two on the fuselage – which allow the aircraft to take off vertically before transitioning to winged flight.

NASA says the Greased Lightning combines the speed and cargo carrying capacity of a plane with the maneuverability of a helicopter. Rather than needing a runway for takeoff and landing, the Greased Lightning can take off from a small landing pad. Its rotors are controlled by throttles that govern the wings and tail independently, and NASA has built several different models out of materials ranging from foam to fiberglass to carbon fiber.

This kind of tilt-rotor technology has been around since the 1980s, when the V-22 Osprey was developed. The Osprey had rotating engines that allowed the aircraft to take off vertically, like a helicopter, and fly forward, like an airplane. But this is the first time the technology is being applied to a small aircraft. (The Osprey was huge, capable of carrying 20,000 pounds of cargo, but often needed more maintenance work than other planes.) The Greased Lightning is an unmanned drone, carrying electronic sensors that allow it to fly more or less autonomously.

NASA thinks the vertical-takeoff design of the Greased Lightning could pave the way for better drones for mapping, surveillance, agricultural data-gathering, and even small package delivery of the kind Amazon has been eying for a few years now. NASA aerospace engineer Bill Fredericks said in a statement that the Greased Lightning’s design could also be scaled up from drone-sized to something capable of carrying one to four people.

The Greased Lightning has had several successful test flights, including the one shown in the video above, and its design makes it more aerodynamically efficient than a helicopter, according to Wired. Since the drone’s wings rotate to take it from helicopter configuration to airplane configuration, it’s capable of more efficient, sustained flight than a helicopter. The first few GL-10 tests didn’t go well, ending in crashes, but NASA says it has refined the design and that the aircraft is now operating reliably.

NASA is showcasing the Greased Lightning at the 2015 Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Systems conference in Atlanta. If the Greased Lightning continues to succeed in its test flights, we might see more industrial drones incorporating a helicopter/airplane hybrid design in the future.

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