Meet Puffin, a new stealthy, hover-capable concept vehicle from NASA. The Puffin is a vertical take-off and landing tail sitter aircraft concept made of carbon fiber that would be powered by a redundant set of electric motors.

The Puffin was developed with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the National Institute of Aerospace, and M-DOT Aerospace. According to Brainchild Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center and internationally recognized expert in personal air vehicle technology, the Puffin is an unusual looking aircraft design: part plane, part helicopter that stands upright on the ground. It’s made almost entirely of composites. The material’s weight saving properties allows for more weight to be dedicated to a lithium phosphate battery. “The scale model was made from carbon fiber to keep the weight low,” says Moore. “But going forward, we are looking at more exotic composites to incorporate into multi-functional structures, such as embedding carbon nanotube sheets that have the potential to help address problems like lightning strike due to its conductive properties.”

Moore proposed the Puffin project as part of the coursework for his PhD. The one-third scale design, headed by retired NASA/Army Engineer Todd Hodges, has been flying for months. “I’d been involved since the paper design study, and I wanted to build a radio-controlled model,” says Hodges. “We finished the model last December and, after a few problems, achieved hover capabilities over the summer and are now expanding the flight envelope.” Overall, he explains, composites allowed him to do complex prototyping rapidly. “At first I tried to go through the remote-controlled industry to match the parts to our paper study—I thought I’d have a lot more success than I did! While we did have to modify and redesign configurations, using both carbon fiber and graphite composite, we were able to hand lay-up the pieces we wanted.”

However, the Puffin is only intended to investigate the potential of electric power for certain aviation applications. “This is not intended as a near-term product. It is an advanced concept integration platform for exploring new technologies,” says Moore. “NASA’s focus is on providing new technologies for U.S. industry, so that new solutions can be provided for our societal transportation needs. Hopefully in the future that technology can be used for things like harbor security patrol and border interdiction.”

Named after the small bird found along the north Pacific and Atlantic regions of the U.S., Moore considers the bird stealthy and green. “If you’ve ever seen a puffin on the ground, it looks very awkward, like its wings are too small to fly, which is exactly what our vehicle looks like,” Moore says. “But it’s also apparently the most environmentally friendly bird because it hides its poop and lives in solitude. Our Puffin is environmentally friendly because it essentially has no emissions and it’s a one-manned vehicle.”