New propeller plane has been under development since 2015 and is a year away from first test flight

NASA has showcased an early version of its first all-electric experimental aircraft, the X-57 ‘Maxwell’, at an aeronautics lab in the California desert.

The aircraft is from an Italian-made Tecnam P2006T twin-engine propeller plane, the X-57 has been under development since 2015 and remains at least a year away from its first test flight in the skies over Edward Air Force Base.

The plane is powered of 14 electric motors and specially designed lithium batteries. NASA also revealed a newly built simulator that allows engineers, and pilots, to get the feel of what it will be like to manoeuvre the finished version of the X-57 in flight, even as the plane remains under development.

Latest in NASA’s experimental aircraft

The Maxwell is the latest in NASA’s line of experimental aircraft, including the bullet-shaped Bell X-1 that first broke the sound barrier and the X-15 rocket plane flown by Neil Armstrong before he joined the Apollo moon team.

The all-electric aircraft will be the agency’s first crewed X-plane to be developed in two decades. While private companies have been developing all-electric planes and hovercraft for years, NASA’s X-57 venture is aimed at designing and proving technology according to standards that commercial manufacturers can adapt for government certification. These will include standards for airworthiness and safety, as well as for energy efficiency and noise.

Target to fly aircraft in late 2020

Brent Cobleigh, a project manager for NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards said: “We’re focusing on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company. Our target right now is to fly this airplane in late 2020.”

The final modification, or Mod IV, of the aircraft, will feature narrower, lighter-weight wings fitted with a total of 14 electric engines – six smaller ‘lift’ props along the leading edge of each wing, plus two larger ‘cruise’ props at the tip of each wing. The lift propellers will also be activated for take-off and landings, but will retract during the flight’s cruise phase.

Battery technology must be improved

Cobleigh added that electric motor systems are more compact with fewer moving parts than internal-combustion engines, are simpler to maintain and weigh much less, requiring less energy to fly. They are also quieter than conventional engines.

He added one challenge which must be overcome was improving battery technology to store more energy to extend the plane’s range, along with faster re-charging.

Due to current battery limitations, Maxwell’s design is envisaged for use in short-haul flights as an air-taxi or commuter plane for a small number of passengers.

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