New NASA plane could be unmanned aircraft of the future

Posted at 11:44 PM, May 28, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-28 23:44:32-04

Hampton, Va. - To some, it might look like a big toy.  But a 55-pound battery-powered plane, designed and built by engineers at NASA Langley, is the real deal.

And one day, it could be used for mapping, research, and much more.

"It's not like any other aircraft I've ever seen," said David North, aerospace engineer at NASA Langley.

The aircraft is named Greased Lightning.  And that name has a lot to do with how the aircraft powers up to fly.

The word greased has to do with the type of fuel the aircraft could use one day.  Lightning comes from the 10 electric motors it uses to take off right now.

"Flying an airplane is very difficult, even real or unmanned.  But flying a helicopter, like I always tell people, it's like balancing a basketball on the tip of a pencil.  So, with this aircraft, you're trying to merge both of them together," said Zachary Johns

Johns was the test pilot for the aircraft at Fort A.P. Hill, which is located north of Richmond.  He says the aircraft takes off like a helicopter.  Then, during flight, it transitions from hover mode to forward flight, like an airplane, all with the slow tilt of the wing and tail.

"It all happens at one time, and I have to fly it manually, so it's very tough," said Johns.

One of the big advantages of the aircraft is that if a couple of the motors go out, NASA says it could still fly and accomplish its mission.

"We wanted to create a vehicle that could take off from anywhere in any space.  So if you have a 15 x 15 ft. space, you could take off and then transition into airplane like flight " said North.

North says the aircraft is just in its testing phase right now.  But he and the team of engineers say the aircraft could be used for mapping, agriculture, deliveries or even during emergencies.  The team hopes to have an even bigger hybrid model of the aircraft, one that could fly people, in the future.