NASA on Friday showcased the X-57 Maxwell– an early version of its first all-electric experimental aircraft at its aeronautics lab in the California desert. The aircraft has been adapted from an Italian-made Tecnam P2006T twin-engine propeller plane and has been under development since 2015.
The Maxwell is the latest in the line of experimental aircraft NASA has developed over many decades. The others in the category include the bullet-shaped Bell X-1 that first broke the sound barrier and the X-15 rocket plane that was flown by astronaut Neil Armstrong before he joined the Apollo moon team. The Maxwell will be the agency’s first crewed X-plane to be developed in two decades.
At the moment, the X-57 Maxwell is at least a year away from its first test flight, however, NASA made the aircraft ready for its first public preview by attaching the two largest of 14 electric motors powered by specially designed lithium-ion batteries to propel the plane. Even though the X-57 remains under development, the space agency has made a simulator to allow engineers and pilots to get the feel of what it will be like to manoeuvre the finished version of the said aircraft.
For an electric aircraft, one challenge is to improve the battery technology in order to store more energy and extend the plane’s range. Due to current battery limitations, Maxwell’s design is envisioned for use as an air-taxi or commuter plane for a small number of passengers in short-haul flights.
The Mod IV or the final modification of the aircraft will feature narrower and lighter-weight wings fitted with a total of 14 electric engines– six smaller “lift” props along the leading edge of each wing and 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.
Brent Cobleigh, a project manager for NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards told Reuters that electric motor systems are quieter than the conventional engines and since they are also more compact with fewer moving parts, they are simpler to maintain and weigh much less, requiring less energy to fly.
Private companies have been developing all-electric planes and hover-craft for years. NASA’s X-57 venture aims to provide designing and technology standards including standards for airworthiness, safety, noise, and energy efficiency. The commercial manufacturers can adapt these parameters for government certification.
“We’re focusing on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company,” Cobleigh told Reuters. “Our target right now is to fly this airplane in late 2020.”
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