| NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc

NASA aims to jump-start new technology with all-electric aircraft

NASA last week lifted the veil on the space agency’s first designated “X-plane” in 10 years – an all-electric concept aircraft nicknamed “Maxwell” that's designed to be more efficient, quieter and much less polluting than any conventional aircraft.

A four-seat Italian twin-engine light aircraft will be delivered to an integration center in California’s Mojave Desert next month, marking one of the initial steps in the construction of NASA’s X-57 aircraft, Sean Clarke, a NASA engineer, told AMI Newswire on Tuesday.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced plans for the ultra-green aircraft Friday in Washington, predicting that “the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation.”

Although the agency is best known for its efforts in space exploration, NASA spokesman Matt Kamlet at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in California said the electric aircraft project dovetails with the agency efforts in past decades to keep the U.S. aviation technology competitive with the rest of the world.

NASA, whose predecessor organization was called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, now has a decade-long plan called New Aviation Horizons designed to advance aeronautical research and development. It's all part of a longstanding partnership approach between the space agency and the aeronautics industry aimed at speeding environmentally friendly technology into the commercial marketplace. 

Named after the 19th century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, the X-57 will consist of an Italian Tecnam fuselage that will be retrofitted with a thin, high-tech wing housing 14 electric motors – a dozen of which will be used during take-offs and landings, NASA announced.

Two other larger motors located on the wingtips will be fired up to power the plane when it reaches cruising altitude.

Clarke, a co-principal investigator with NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, said a key goal of the electric aircraft is to demonstrate that its energy requirements will be five times less than a similar conventional general aviation aircraft.

“We will take state-of-the-art motors and batteries and combine them in a new, complex way to get a better-performing vehicle out of it,” Clarke said.

Even so, don’t expect to take a cross-country trip on a battery-powered airliner anytime soon.

Tom Irvine, managing director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, told AMI Newswire that the aviation industry is decades away from scaling up such electrical technology for use in large civilian aircraft.

Irvine did indicate, however, that manufacturers are on the cusp of introducing one- and two-seater electric aircraft with a range of 60 to 100 miles.

“Within five years or a decade, you’ll see planes marketed that are electric-motor-driven,” he said, adding that battery capacity and weight will continue to be limiting factors in their range.

The NASA project should eventually showcase a distributed electronic system capable of serving so-called “thin-haul” aircraft – those that can carry about a dozen passengers on short trips between smaller airports, such as Albuquerque to Santa Fe, N.M., Irvine said.

“As for the ride overall, in terms of vibration of the plane, it’s going to be a different experience,” he said. It will be quieter and smoother than an aircraft that runs on fuel, similar to going from a car with an internal combustion engine to a hybrid electric vehicle.

Clarke said that, once built, the X-57 will be designed to fly at altitudes of up to 15,000 feet and feature a battery system capable of keeping the plane in the air for about an hour. It will only fly distances of under 100 miles, but that will be enough to demonstrate the efficiency of the aircraft, he said.

Mounting motors on the wingtips is considered a nonstandard configuration for an aircraft, Clarke explained, so additional safety features will be needed in the design. 

In retrofitting the Tecnam aircraft, all the seats will be removed with the exception of the one for the pilot, he said.

Clarke credited a number of small high-tech California companies that would be working together in the year ahead to make the experimental plane a reality. The motors will be developed by a company in Santa Cruz, while the batteries will be constructed in the Los Angeles area, he said.

Mark Moore, an aerodynamicist at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, said in a 2015 article in a NASA publication that the propeller technology developed for use in the X-57 “has the potential to achieve transformational capabilities in the near term for general aviation aircraft, as well as for transport aircraft in the longer term.”