Story at a glance

  • The Maxwell X-57 is a small all-electric airplane developed by NASA.
  • NASA’s experimental airplane is hoped to help set industry standards for electric aircraft.
  • “We’re focusing on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company,” says the project manager.

Reading “NASA” might evoke images of rocket launches and interplanetary probes, but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has another, less-known research program. NASA also develops experimental planes, and on Nov. 8, an all-electric aircraft was unveiled to the public, Reuters reports.

The plane, called the Maxwell X-57, is now at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The plane is adapted from an Italian-made design that seats four people, making it the first crewed aircraft that NASA has developed through the experimental program in 20 years. And although private companies have been working on all-electric aircraft for years, NASA’s work on the X-57 can help the industry settle on design standards.

“We’re focusing on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company,” Brent Cobleigh, a project manager for NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards, told Reuters. NASA’s goals for this plane, which is currently in its first of three test configurations, include a 500 percent increase in high-speed cruise efficiency, zero in-flight carbon emissions and flight that is much quieter for people on the ground, according to a press release.

To achieve those goals, the Maxwell is designed to use 14 motors spaced out along the front of the plane’s wings. The two largest motors would propel the plane, and the other 12 – six per wing – would help the aircraft take off, then retract while the plane is flying. The plane would be powered by specially engineered, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. An all-electric plane could make a dent in the carbon emissions produced by the airline industry, but battery production comes with a carbon footprint, too.

For now, the aircraft is undergoing ground tests while its second and third configurations are designed and manufactured by NASA and ESAero. Future iterations will have narrower, lighter-weight wings, and designers hope that further research on battery technology will extend its flight time. For now, they envision the plane being used for short-haul flights as an air taxi, with flight tests to start next year.

“Our target right now is to fly this airplane in late 2020,” Cobleigh told Reuters.

Published on Nov 12, 2019