While the subject of all-electric aircraft often kicks up heated arguments amongst our readers, it is still certainly an area to keep an eye on, owing to its potential for great market disruption (and an accompanying slashing of carbon emissions).
The technology clearly has some stumbling blocks to overcome, though, if it’s ever going to be widely deployed (economic viability being a major one). With that in mind, it seems worth revisiting NASA’s ongoing X-57 (nicknamed “Maxwell”) electric aircraft project — part of the organization’s 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative.
Things appear to be coming along pretty well, with engineers and employees from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center and Langley Research Center recently (on July 19th) taking delivery of the modified Tecnam P2006T fuselage that will be used to create the X-57.
A recent press release from NASA (h/t Peter Sinclair) explains why this could be important: “The fuselage will be integrated with an experimental, high-aspect ratio wing being designed at NASA Langley. NASA’s aeronautical innovators hope to validate the idea that distributing electric power across a number of motors (14 in the case of the X-57) integrated with an aircraft in this way will result in a 5-time reduction in the energy required for a private plane to cruise at 175 mph. Several other benefits would result as well. ‘Maxwell’ will be powered only by batteries, eliminating carbon emissions and demonstrating how demand would shrink for lead-based aviation fuel still in use by general aviation.”
Another potential benefit could be reduced inter-cabin noise. An interesting question, though, is whether or not these benefits (if truly present) could be scaled-up to benefit anyone other wealthy, private, small-aircraft owners?
Current New Aviation Horizons initiative plans call for a “series of increasingly larger electric aircraft” to follow the X-57, so that’s clearly the stated intent.
Back to the X-57: following inspections, the fuselage is being shipped to Scaled Composites in Mojave, California, where the work will be done to create the all-electric X-57 — first through the creation of an electric aircraft using the “stock Tecnam configuration,” and then through modification and the integration of the new wing design.
Continuing: “The planned final version will feature 12 small electric propellers along a high-aspect ratio wing’s leading edge, and 2 larger electric cruise motors out on the wing tips. The experimental, high-aspect ratio wing is being designed at NASA Langley in Virginia, and fabricated by Xperimental LLC in San Luis Obispo, California. The wing’s 12 small electric propellers will be used to generate lift during takeoff and landing only, while the 2 outboard motors will be used during cruise. The wing will be integrated onto the fuselage once the electric power validation flights are complete. The vehicle will be powered by a battery system, developed by Electric Power Systems of the City of Industry in California.”
The electric motors are being developed by Santa Cruz–based Joby Aviation.
Flight tests for the first iteration of the X-57 are tentatively slated for spring 2018.
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