In the 1980s, the US military developed the V-22 Osprey. The tiltrotor aircraft is capable of vertical takeoff and landing, but can rotate its engines to fly like a regular plane. That versatility makes it a valuable military commodity. The Osprey can take off from aircraft carriers. It can take off from tightly enclosed fields. Or, if you’ve seen The Living Daylights, it can lift straight up from a Trans-Siberian Pipeline station with a Soviet defector James Bond has just smuggled through a gas tube.
NASA’s Langley Research Center is now incorporating that kind of rotor technology into a drone. The GL-10 Greased Lightning is the latest battery-powered prototype. Hardly what anyone would call a sleek design, it features a ten-foot wingspan and just as many engines.
With four engines on each wing and another two on its tail, the UAV is steered with three separate throttle controls. This month, the GL-10 was successfully tested for the first time, rotating its engines midflight, shifting from "helicopter" mode to "wingborne" mode.
As clunky as the UAV may look, its transition between those two functions is surprisingly graceful.
So what does one do with a 10-propeller drone? Add bombs? Target militants? Chase drug smugglers along the Rio Grande before landing snugly in the back of Customs and Border Protection pickup truck? Not quite.
"We have a couple of options that this concept could be good for," said Bill Fredericks, an aerospace engineer with NASA. "It could be used for small package delivery…long endurance surveillance for agriculture, mapping and other applications."
It could even be used for travel in the future.
"A scaled up version – much larger than what we are testing now – would also make a great one to four person size personal vehicle."
It’s the latest of 12 prototypes developed by the team.
"We built 12 prototypes, starting with simple five-pound foams models and then 25-pound, highly modified fiberglass hobby airplane kits all leading up to the 55-pound, high quality, carbon fiber GL-10 built in our model shop by expert technicians," aerospace engineer David North said.
While it may be hard to fathom just what use the drone could have for an agency primarily interested in outer space, every little step helps.
"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 with the Wallops Flight Facility.
Let’s hope the Greased Lightning has a better safety record than its Osprey cousin. The V-22 has a deplorable history of crashes, but it also only has two engines, so the GL-10 may have the upper hand.