WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Big improvements in the energy density of batteries mean that all electric aircraft are now becoming a possibility.
Anyone who’s anyone in the aviation industry, from Airbus and Boeing to Rolls Royce, is trying to develop an electric aircraft, and NASA doesn’t want to be left out which is they they’ve been spending money and time developing their own with partners, and they just took delivery of their first all electric X-Plane.
Known as X-57 Maxwell Mod II, it is the agency’s first all electric experimental aircraft and the first crewed X-plane, where X denotes Experimental, in two decades, and with it NASA hopes that they’re going to get a chance to set the standards for the nascent electric aircraft industry.
Just arrived at @NASAArmstrong: our 1st all-electric experimental aircraft, or X-plane! ✈️@NASAaero researchers will use it to demo the benefits electric propulsion may have for efficiency, noise and emissions. Details: https://t.co/K6DYLBpr9m pic.twitter.com/Kht2idCjCs
— NASA (@NASA) October 3, 2019
The X-57 Maxwell was delivered to NASA this week by its prime contractor Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero) at the agency’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, and the rolled-out X-57 comes in the first of three configurations as an all electric aircraft, known as Modification II, or Mod II.
The X-57’s Mod II is replaces the traditional combustion engines in an Italian Tecnam P2006T light aircraft with electric cruise motors. The propulsions system powering the Maxwell weighs approximately 3,000 pounds, including its 860 pound Lithium Ion batteries, and the aircraft can reach a cruising speed of 172 miles per hour at 8,000 feet.
Referring to the delivery as a “major milestone”, NASA will now start putting the aircraft through ground tests, to be followed by taxi tests and eventually flight tests. The agency is aiming to use the X-57 to advance the design and airworthiness process for distributed electric propulsion technology for general aviation aircraft.
“The X-57 Mod II aircraft delivery to NASA is a significant event, marking the beginning of a new phase in this exciting electric X-plane project,” X-57 Project Manager Tom Rigney said in a statement. “With the aircraft in our possession, the X-57 team will soon conduct extensive ground testing of the integrated electric propulsion system to ensure the aircraft is airworthy. We plan to rapidly share valuable lessons learned along the way as we progress toward flight testing, helping to inform the growing electric aircraft market”.
With the project, that has been in development since 2016, NASA wants to jump ahead of the curve and develop certification standards for the rapidly growing flying electric vehicles market which today includes everything from Urban Mobility Vehicles (UAMs), like the PopUp concept from Airbus, as well as Robo Sky Taxis, like the ones from Porsche and Volocpopter among others.
NASA’s engineers are already preparing for the project’s following phases, Mod III and IV, which will focus on energy efficiency, featuring a high-aspect ratio wing, compared to the wider, standard wing from the Mod II phase, and this September, the agency successfully completed loads testing on the new wing that will be integrated into the final configuration.
“ESAero is thrilled to be delivering the MOD II X-57 Maxwell to NASA AFRC,” said ESAero President and CEO Andrew Gibson in the statement. “In this revolutionary time, the experience and lessons learned, from early requirements to current standards development, has the X-57 paving the way. This milestone, along with receiving the successfully load-tested MOD III wing back, will enable NASA, ESAero and the small business team to accelerate and lead electric air vehicle distributed propulsion development on the MOD III and MOD IV configurations with integration at our facilities in San Luis Obispo”.
The X-57 Mod II, in NASA speak, is a “Design Driver” that’s meant to spur lessons learned and best practices in the development of electric aircraft, and according to NASA this design driver includes a 500 percent increase in high speed cruise efficiency, zero in flight carbon emissions, and quieter flight for communities on the ground.
So while the future of electric flight might still be a little way off in the distance the day’s getting closer when one day we’ll all able to board a flight guilt free and cruise with the birds in a zero emissions plane.