Aeronautics

NASA’s Work in Progress with its First Electric Airplane

Summary

NASA, recognized for its many Florida-launched exploits into space, unveiled an early version of its first all-electric experimental aircraft, the X-57 “Maxwell,” at its lesser-known aeronautics lab in the California desert. At present, the X-57 will remain safely grounded while […]

NASA's Work in Progress with its First Electric Airplane
NASA’s Work in Progress with its First Electric Airplane

NASA, recognized for its many Florida-launched exploits into space, unveiled an early version of its first all-electric experimental aircraft, the X-57 “Maxwell,” at its lesser-known aeronautics lab in the California desert.

At present, the X-57 will remain safely grounded while NASA engineers test its electrical systems and motors, according to a NASA press release. But these preliminary tests will lay a strong foundation in the development of all-electric aircraft — and, if all goes well, will allow the plane to finally take to the skies with a test flight down the road.

Motivated from an Italian-made Tecnam P2006T twin-engine propeller plane, the X-57 has been under development since 2015 and remains at least a year away from its first test flight in the skies over Edward Air Force Base.

But after attaching the two largest of 14 electric motors that will ultimately propel the plane – powered by specially designed lithium-ion batteries – NASA deemed the Maxwell ready for its first public preview.

NASA also showcased a newly built simulator that allows engineers, and pilots, to get the virtual reality of what it will be like to maneuver the finished version of the X-57 in flight, although the plane is under development.

The first pair of electric cruise motors to fly on the X-57 will be powered up and activated which will enable engineers to ensure that the vehicle’s propellers spin as designed.

The Maxwell is the state-of-the-art in a proud line of experimental aircraft the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has developed over many decades for many purposes, including the bullet-shaped Bell X-1 that first broke the sound barrier and the X-15 rocket plane drove by Neil Armstrong before he joined the Apollo moon team.

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The Maxwell will be the agency’s first crewed X-plane to be developed in two decades.

While private companies have been developing all-electric planes and hovercraft for years, NASA’s X-57 venture is aimed at designing and proving technology according to compliance with standards that commercial manufacturers can adapt for government certification.

The standards will be regarding airworthiness and safety, as well as for energy efficiency and noise, Brent Cobleigh, a project manager for NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles.

“We’re focussing on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company,” he told Reuters in an interview at the research center. “Our target right now is to fly this airplane in late 2020.”

The final modification, or Mod IV, of the aircraft, will feature narrower, lighter-weight wings fitted with a total of 14 electric engines – six smaller “lift” props along the leading edge of each wing, plus two larger “cruise” props at the tip of each wing.

The lift propellers will be activated for take-off and landings, but retract during the flight’s cruise phase.

As electric motor systems are more compact with fewer moving parts than internal combustion engines, they are also simpler to maintain and weigh much less, requiring less energy to fly, Cobleigh explained. They also are quieter than conventional engines.

Another challenging fact is improving battery technology to store more energy to extend the plane’s range, with faster re-charging.

Due to current battery limitations, Maxwell’s design is envisioned for use in short-haul flights as an air-taxi or commuter plane for a small number of passengers.

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This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

Regardless of the complexity of this specific test and whether it ends up being a triumph or “learning experience,” the progress on the X-57 is an encouraging sign for the future of electric aircraft.

If all goes to plan, electrifying air travel could go a long way toward eliminating carbon emissions, which would be great news as we stare down a future shaped by climate change.

“We’ve turned a corner from system design and lab tests to turning it over to the NASA flight systems and operations engineers to operate the vehicle,” Sean Clarke, NASA’s X-57 principal investigator, said in the release.

“What they’re learning in this test, they’ll take with them into the control room for the first flight.”

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