back to article NASA flying-car man designs electric VTOL podcraft

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. …


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  1. WonkoTheSane

    Tailsitters are not the way to go...

    Because the tailsitting VTOL prototypes of the 50's & 60's (Convair Pogo, Ryan X13 etc) showed that even the test pilots of the era found them almost impossible to land safely.

    1. Brutus

      Not really a problem...

      because in order to be a useful 'PAV' the thing would need massively smart autopiliot software which I'm sure could easily manage a tailfirst landing, particularly since we have > 50 years worth of sensor tech to assist.

    2. James Hughes 1


      Far be it for me to comment, but I think without computers, the pilots of the 50's and 60's (70,80,90,00, 10's) woudn't be able to land a Typhoon or F35 either.

      Anyway, stick a micro turbine and leccy generator on this and improve the flight time. Not sure what sort of watts you could get out, and what the improvement would be, but it would be a quick and easy way of getting the greens annoyed.

      1. markp 1
        Thumb Up


        Both the F16 and the F117-A, neither of them particularly new aircraft by any standard (the F16's computer is genuinely a contender for the first-ever use of microprocessors, anywhere), are reportedly designed such that if the flight control computer that translates the pilot's inputs to control surface movements were to fail, either plane would simply fall out of the sky*. The humans telling it where to go simply wouldn't have the know-how or reaction speed to keep it on an even keel.

        An iPhone-type control module would find it embarrassingly trivial to keep a vehicle which was *almost* tamed by humans hanging uncannily still in midair.

        * - the F16 because it was intended to be as twitchy as possible for dogfight ability, the F117A because of it's bizarro-world, drastically unaerodynamic, radar-cheating shape and poor engine power/lift characteristics.

    3. Steven Knox

      So your argument is...

      that because we couldn't do it 50 YEARS AGO, we can't do it now? The very medium you're posting in disproves your point.

      1. Danny 14

        not really

        Ground effect is still ground effect computers or not. I dont fancy having 90seconds to tail sit gently in a crosswind on a slight slope.

    4. Aldous

      same with forward swept wings

      fly by wire cures alot of the problems the X planes had. i really hope battery tech does go the way the guy predicts these things would be cool like a flying motorbike :)

      heh 50 years ago "it would work if the MHZ density of computer systems could be increased"

  2. Frank Bough
    Thumb Up

    Bloody Fantastic

    no, really. Ironman here we come.

  3. Bilgepipe


    Sounds like those toy helicopters that take four hours to charge up for five minutes flying time.

    1. Falstaff

      Re. Pah!

      45kg of battery could be _switched_ out in as many seconds, just like a power drill battery.

  4. TeeCee Gold badge

    That sounds like fun.

    Here we are.

    Flying along.

    Lovely day.

    Let's land over there.


  5. Tom_


    That'd get me to work in about five minutes instead of spending half an hour on the tube.

    It'd be better if your arms went inside the wings though. It'd feel more like you were flying that way.

    1. markp 1

      Very this ... again :D

      Especially given the recent trouble with weather, and now horrendous traffic in the midlands post-thaw. Seems like every single teenager was given a car for their christmas present.

      15 minutes of flight at about 60-70mph (all you'll get at the 15~20 BHP cruise it would allow) would get me between home and work just nicely, and there's 3-phase here I could plug into to charge up. Or run a small onboard hydrolysis plant for the fuelcell version...

  6. Anonymous Coward


    Clicked very excitedly on the video, thinking he'd at least prototyped it.

    Next time, please title the article "NASA boff plays with Maya in his spare time"

  7. Eddy Ito

    A pain in the neck

    The short range would actually be best given the inevitable neck strain induced from flying forward in a prone position. The muscles supporting the head don't actually do much work as they simply balance the skull on a stack of discs known as a spine. Lying prone requires the head to be supported by muscle tension and places added compression on the vertebrae. Put simply, humans don't have the paddywhack for it where a horse does.

    Sure, my 15 year old niece can watch the latest Harry Potter movie, straight through, lying on the floor but she can use her arms and hands as a built-in bipod.

    1. markp 1

      that'd be sorted out during beta testing

      I can't see it being beyond nasa to include some kind of inflatable chin rest / neck brace that swells up as the pod transitions forwards, instantly solving this issue.

      Or you could stand on top of it holding a bar or leather strap like you're riding some kind of rodeo condor, and cling on for dear life during the takeoff/landing parts :D

    2. Falstaff


      Inane. Get off the couch. One can ride a road bike with the neck _nearly_ prone all day long.

      1. Eddy Ito

        _nearly_ hang gliding

        Ah, the beauty of words like nearly and virtually is in knowing they are marketing terms which mean "not". Now then, Mr. Armstrong, I doubt members of Critical Mass were in the target market demographic inasmuch as they'll be busy riding their bike all day.

        @Graham Bartlett

        Granted people do fly hang gliders for extended periods while prone but let me provide the relevant FAQ regarding a supine flying position;

        "Increased visibility (due to the head up position) helps in searching for active clouds and other pilots, increased comfort, less neck strain and better abliity(sic) to perform windy cliff launches due to the ease with which the nose may be pointed into the lift vector."

    3. the Jim bloke

      fix it with mirrors

      like those old pub videogame cabinets, with the display tube mounted vertically, but reflected to be visible from players standing in front.

  8. Magnus_Pym

    Looks OK...

    ... but I can't see how it starts the transfer from hover to fly. Is there a control surface moving that we cannot see in the animation or is the centre of gravity changing? I can see that as it starts to gain horizontal velocity the airflow across the tail would tend to make it tilt further and this would lead to a fully horizontal machine but I cannot see how the change is initiated.

    1. markp 1

      Probably something to do with that "excellence of electric motors"

      Which sounds like a great new collective pronoun if ever I heard one. A few tiny thruster ductfans dotted around the body or existing control surfaces would probably do the trick just nicely, as well as being fairly essential for attitude and position maintenance in tail-sitting mode. Like what is currently implemented with gas jets on the shuttle, various satellites, thunderbird 1 etc.

    2. Sandy Scott

      RE: Looks OK...

      You can see all 4 tail surfaces move - remember that these will have plenty of air flowing over them from the downwash of the propellors - more than enough to initiate the transition.

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    He's really got the playmobile vibe going.

    Aside from looking quite bonkers it is about as "personal" a vehicle as you can get. I suspect there are *very* carefully thought reasons for every element of the design.

    NASA used to have a tradition of X-planes. Small-ish programmes that took the know technology and pushed its capabilites as far as possible to show the aerospace industry what was *possible* and how it could be achieved. Sadly they have not done too many in recent years. This could make an interesting candidate for one.

  10. john 154

    its been done....

    Seriously tho'....the PAV was solved about 20 yrs ago by the Voljet. It uses a standard turbine to copress air and squirt it out of the tips of the rotors. No need for a boom (tail) as in standard helicopters. Its quiet, safer than most helios and can be flown with no hands ! so its easy to train people. Those megacorp helicopter manufacturers wont take it up tho' because amongst other things it requres much less maintenance than a standard heli.

    Watch the video on youtube. Its a big file but look at what it does at 7 mins into the video. Rises vertically like its on elastic !

    1. Anonymous Bastard

      Interesting technology

      If the megacorps don't like the low profits then surely there's a small company or startup who would be interested. The nature of a free market means that *someone* must be trying to sell tip driven rotors. I sense that's not the full story, perhaps The Register can do a 'forgotten tech' piece on the Voljet.

      1. TeeCee Gold badge

        You may be right there.

        "I sense that's not the full story..."

        IIRC with rotor-tip jets, the "quiet" bit is only true if you're wearing really good quality ear defenders.

    2. Magnus_Pym

      Have you heard of the fairy rotodyn

      Magnificent machine. The only problem was the arsplitting whine form the rotor tips on take off.

  11. Nux Vomica

    Rush hour would be fun......

    The average driver has enough trouble controlling a vehicle at far lower speeds in 2 dimensions with no danger from a power outage.

    How's the average dimwit going to cope in 3D, far higher speeds (your reactions don't get any quicker), and the inevitable running out of juice? (Even if they manage to invent these magic batteries).

    Fantastic for population control, but buggered if I'd live anywhere they were legal for unrestricted use.

    For that matter can we dispense with belts and airbags in cars and just put a six inch spike in the middle of the steering wheel? That would make car crashes a self limiting problem.

    And ANOTHER thing...........

  12. markp 1

    Is it just me...

    ...or are they missing a serious trick here on the weight : energy storage front? If the big advantage of the motors is their low noise/cool running, consistent performance, and flexibility in placement, rather than ultimate green-ness (which batteries aren't so good for anyway).

    So ... Why not power it with a fuel cell? Tanking it full of hydrogen wouldn't exactly making it a great deal heavier than the current version, after all. If we (naively?) assume a similar energy density to petrol, 45kg will net you an AWFUL lot more range than the batteries. And 45kW is sort-of within realistic range of a generator cell small and light enough to fit in that frame (with a bit of development), maybe with a small bank of booster supercapacitors for vertical take-off and hovering, with the machine slowly descending to earth on whatever power the cells can put out (... or a parachute) once the boost is exhausted, much like an autogyro. A motorcycle sized one can make about 7-10kW without difficulty and be carried around with one hand. Morgan are after putting a 30-40kW one in a prototype superlight (again, with SC boosters for leaping off the line or overtaking), which altogether will probably weigh similar to this flying suit.

    Oh, and I'll take mine either Mehve-, Flying Jar- or Valley Gunship-shaped, for any of you that know WTF I'm on about :D Ironman would be cool-as, but so passe by that point. All the cool kids would have bought one and then found out that half the world had an identical model.

    1. Charles Manning

      re: weight : energy

      It's all cgi. Pixels weight nothing. No wonder it works.

      Does the idea of those clueless people you see driving everyday taking to the skies seem like a good idea?

  13. Stevie


    Because it's not like in "Avatar".

  14. Nux Vomica

    @markp 1

    It gets better, now the flying retards have 45kg of pressurised hydrogen on board. I live near one of the busiest international airports in the world and my only concern about air crashes are that I won't get it on video if it ever happens. They're almost exclusively trained professionals up there.

    Now driving to work every morning.. THAT scares the shit outta me.

  15. Falstaff

    Battery information is dated. Do the homework.

    Batter energy density information is dated. 135Wh/kg is commonly available now, providing this aircraft w/ 6kWh.

    See here for example (LiFePO4)

    For purposes of experimentation, commonly available primary lithium batteries could be used, providing 0.5 kWh/kg, or 22 kWh in this case. A primary battery would also make a good emergency landing backup power source for this aircraft.

    None of this means this aircraft is realizable, but at least the above information is readily available; Mr Page has failed to do his homework.

  16. Eugene Goodrich
    Paris Hilton

    It's called an air-brake.

    " ... though it could make an impressive glider, the more so as its props would be able to act as turbines in forward flight, recharging the batteries as the Puffin glided down."

    Running the props as turbines while gliding is _not_ going to make the glide more impressive. Unless your definition of impressive is "how steeply can I get to the ground".

    Paris, because she has an impressive glide, due no doubt in part to her not running her props as turbines to recharge her etc. etc..

  17. John Smith 19 Gold badge


    "the F16's computer is genuinely a contender for the first-ever use of microprocessors, anywhere"

    First microprocessor (4004) released 1971. First YF16 around 1974. The first computer augmented system in the US was flown by NASA using a moded F8 and a surplus Apollo flight computer to get triple redundancy arounc 1972. Were y ou perhpas thinking of the first use of the USAF 1750A microprocessor architecture?

    "Why not power it with a fuel cell? "

    "after all. If we (naively?) assume a similar energy density to petrol, 45kg will net you an AWFUL lot more range than the batteries. And 45kW is sort-of within realistic range of a generator cell small and light enough to fit in that frame "

    Very naive. 1Kg of petrol is around 60Mj of energy. However it's about 1.4litres in size as petrol density is (IIRC) 720 Kgm^-3. BTW 45Kw is roughly 60Hp. Does that give some perspective?

    Hydrogen as a liquid is 70Kgm^-3 so 45Kg is 643Litres or roughly 22.7 CuFt.. That's at -253C, or -424F. If you go with 5000psi storage tanks that changes things. Your'e still stuck with the fuel cell however. IIRC a Helium tank on the Shuttle to hold 30Kg of Helium weighs 270Lb and is charged to c3000psi. The tech has improved and you won't need it to pull 3g but it will still be pretty damm heavy.

    Hydrogen has been described as a "wonder" fuel and in some ways it is, but only if you *completely* ignore its handling properties, which make it a real PITA.

  18. Graham Bartlett

    @ Pain in the neck

    I guess this means that hang-glider pilots don't regularly fly for hours in prone position. Oh wait...

    In point of fact, you don't need to be looking straight forward for most of your flight. When you're in a crowded airspace (gliders flying a ridge, for example) then situational awareness is a must, and of course when you turn then you need to look where you're going to end up, but in straight-line flight you're paying more attention to flight planning, moment-by-moment flying, and plain old sight-seeing. You can see a long way up there, and other air users don't tend to approach that fast (or if they do - low-flying Tornados for example - then avoidance is *their* problem, not yours).

    Oh, and Eugene is dead right - using the props as generators will turn your nifty efficient flying machine into an airborne brick. If you're in a massive thermal or wave lift or something then OK, but it's not something you'd want to be doing in normal flight, except (as Eugene says) if you genuinely do want to create air-braking.

  19. Daedalus

    Yet another naive loony

    What do these people smoke? This guy comes up with a design whose wings are so small you couldn't get enough lift at less than a few hundred knots, a rotor blade area that's probably about 1/30 of what you need for a low-power engine to get you off the ground, and a landing gear that leaves the thing likely to fall over in any decent breeze.

    There are already several viable one-person aircraft. There's the ultralite (I'd like to see him start with an electric version of that), the parasail, the one-man autogyro, the one-man jet (a real beaut but not for Joe Bloggs) and any number of really, really light general aviation aircraft. All of them work because the designers understand the limits of available motors, aerofoils and lightweight materials.

  20. John Smith 19 Gold badge


    I guess the presumption has been that if this guy is an expert then these things were sized appropriately.

    I note that 30k Ft is *roughly* 1/4 sea level air pressure so as a rule of thumb it a wing could lift mass accoding to the air pressure at that level. IE 529 lb/Sq Ft or 2589Kg/Sq m. But real aircraft run with *much* lower wing loadings (1/5 or less of this number). So the jokers in this pack are what speed is needed to generate that level of lift and how much does this thing weigh?

  21. Dirty Irish Pirate


    Cool. Twatdangling for the unwashed masses.

  22. the Jim bloke

    I think its brilliant

    The entire population of the world should each get one.

    Sane people can wait indoors for a couple of days until the debris stops falling, then build a functioning civilisation.

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