NASA unveils experimental electric plane

The X-57 plane marks the space agency’s first attempt at electric air travel, with the team hoping to get it in the air by the end of next year.

NASA has unveiled its experimental electric aircraft, which has been in development since 2015. The X-57, informally known as ‘Maxwell’, is the agency’s first foray into electric air travel, and its first manned X-plane in more than two decades.

The aircraft has been adapted from an Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine propeller plane. Where the original had traditional combustion engines, the X-57 has 14 electric cruise motors.

Lithium-ion batteries will power the engine motors, which are more compact and have fewer moving parts than internal-combustion engines. This makes them simpler to maintain and lighter, according to NASA.

Render of X-57 above a city, courtesy of NASA

Battery limitations

While these engines require less energy to keep the aircraft in the sky, battery limitations have put some restrictions on the future usage of the X-57. With its current battery situation, the design is envisioned for use in short-haul flights as an air-taxi or commuter plane for a small number of passengers.

It will also have a much lower operational altitude than commercial airplanes. Where traditional airplanes fly at 45,000ft (13km), the team expects the Maxwell will fly at just 14,000ft (4.2km).

According to NASA, improving battery technology is one of the key working points on the project. Chiefly, this will involve boosting energy storage capabilities, which will extend the plane’s range, and speeding up re-charging times.

Armstrong Flight Research Center taking delivery of the aircraft, courtesy of NASA/Lauren Hughes

Private sector interest in electric air travel

The X-57 is the latest of several recent ventures involving electric air travel. Last month, Porsche and Boeing revealed the had teamed up in the pursuit of developing a fully electric vertical take-off and landing vehicle (VTOL), or “flying car” as they suggested.

At the time, Nadescha Vornehm, a representative from Porsche, told Design Week that air travel was a natural extension for the company: “Mobility in the air is faster, more efficient and more flexible. This fits with Porsche.”

Meanwhile, ridesharing app Uber has also entered the electric air travel conversation, with its own project set to launch in 2023. According to the company, Uber Air looks to “[transform] the world through aerial ridesharing at scale”.

Test flights for the service could begin as soon as 2020, with Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne earmarked as the first recipients. Initially the service intends to connect suburbs with cities, but Uber says it eventually hopes to practice within cities too.

Armstrong Flight Research Center taking delivery of the aircraft, courtesy of NASA/Lauren Hughes

Improving the industry as a whole

While these examples point to plenty of private-sector interest in electric air travel, Brent Cobleigh, project manager for NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Centre at Edwards, says NASA’s X-57 is aimed at designing and improving technology that can eventually be government-approved for commercial air travel. This includes potentially making it quieter, more energy efficient and safer.

“As time goes on, you’ll be able to see these technologies move into real commercial airplanes,” says Cobleigh. “When you introduce electric systems, you can make operations much cheaper and just enable something that doesn’t exist yet.”

He adds: “We’re focusing on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company.”

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