Watch NASA's Greased Lightning aerocopter (heliplane?) take off and fly

With 10 propellers and a 10-foot wingspan, NASA's unmanned aerial vehicle can take off like a helicopter, then fly like a plane.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

"Remotely piloted aircraft are enhancing NASA science investigations and serve as a platform to expand technology development for aircraft, cubesats and other platforms," said Mike Hitch, an official from the director's office of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. NASA Langley/David C. Bowman

Look, up in the sky! It's an aeroplanecopter. It's a helicoptoplane. It's a... well, just what is it exactly?

If you were an observer at a military base about two hours away from NASA's research center at Langley, Va., recently, those are questions that would easily have come to mind. That's where a team of NASA researchers launched a test flight of Greased Lightning (or less sexily, GL-10), an electrically powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that has eight propellers along its 10-foot (3-meter) wingspan and another two on its tail.

Those propellers, along with a pivoting wing structure, allow Greased Lightning to rise up and hover like a helicopter, but then fly along like a regular airplane. The vehicle, which is truly the most awesome remote-controlled plane ever, displays its moves in the video below that was released by NASA's Langley Research Center last week. This week, the plane/copter is being shown off at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International 2015 conference in Atlanta.

So what does NASA want with a aerocopter?

"We have a couple of options that this concept could be good for," said Bill Fredericks, Langley aerospace engineer, in a statement. "It could be used for small package delivery or vertical takeoff and landing, long endurance surveillance for agriculture, mapping and other applications. A scaled-up version -- much larger than what we are testing now -- would make also a great one to four-person-size personal air vehicle."

Such a scaled-up version would have a wingspan of 20 feet, or 6 meters.

While Greased Lightning has made flights before and demonstrated its helicopter-like powers, this is the first time it successfully transitioned to airplane mode in flight. When flying like a plane, each set of propellers work in unison to control flight. The four props on the right wing are controlled together, as are the four on the left wing and the two on the tail.

The next step for the researchers, who clearly have one of the coolest jobs on Earth, is to confirm the plane's aerodynamic efficiency, which Fredericks says is four times that of a regular helicopter.