NASA is not known for taking risks. But by partnering with smaller, pluckier transportation technology companies, they can bring their engineering might to bear on blue-sky technologies that would never have reached internal approval.
One such partner is Joby Aviation, a California-based company "founded to revolutionize how we commute." Joby's radical S2 aircraft is designed to increase commuting speed by a factor of five—while using five times less energy than an automobile traveling the same distance. They mean to achieve this via distributed electric propulsion; no less than twelve rotors, each with their own electric motor, launch the vehicle vertically, then tilt forward in concert to enable cruising. Take a look at this nuttiness:
That CG animation was created last year. In the time since, NASA has been working on a remote-controlled scale model—in essence, a drone—that uses the same technology, to see if they can actually get it to work. Two weeks ago NASA's Langley Research Center released video of the test flight:
The prototype you see in the video, dubbed "Greased Lightning," uses ten rotors rather than twelve, and tilts the entire wing assemblies rather than the individual rotors, but demonstrates that the crucial transition from hovering to flying is workable. It's true that the prototype doesn't look as sexy or feature the fancy folding propellers shown in the S2 renderings below, but it will presumably be Joby's task to realize those.
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NASA, Joby Aviation and third engineering partner ESAero are calling the technology LEAPTech, for Leading Edge Asynchronous Propellers Technology. Here NASA Aerospace Engineer Mark D. Moore explains the staggering efficiencies they're able to achieve with this configuration, and points out that distributed electric propulsion will change the way that we design vehicles: