NASA unveils plans for electric X-plane

NASA’s new X-plane will be powered by 14 electric propellers, as the US agency looks to explore the frontiers of green aviation.

(Credit: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.)
(Credit: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.)

The X-57 is part of NASA’s New Aviation Horizons project, and a continuation of the experimental X-plane programme that first broke the sound barrier in 1947 with the X-1. Researchers working directly on the new aircraft have nicknamed it ‘Maxwell’, in honour of the 19th century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, famed for his work on electromagnetism.

Maxwell will start life as a prototype built using a modified Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft. The original wing and piston engines will be replaced with a long, thin wing embedded with 14 electric motors. They will power one large propeller on each wing tip for cruising, plus 12 smaller propellers on the leading edge of the wings, used only for take off and landing.

“With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities – which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative – the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

The agency hopes to validate the idea that distributing electric power across multiple motors will lead to a five-time reduction in the energy required for a private plane to cruise at 175 mph. According to NASA, energy efficiency at cruise altitude using X-57 technology could benefit travellers by reducing flight times and fuel usage, as well as reducing overall operational costs for small aircraft by as much as 40 per cent.

As the aircraft will be powered entirely by batteries, other benefits should include significantly quieter flight. The New Aviation Horizons initiative will involve as many as five larger transport-scale X-planes, which will also demonstrate advanced technologies to reduce fuel use, emissions and noise.