EDWARDS, AIR FORCE BASE CALIFORNIA – NASA, best known for its many Florida-launched forays into space, showcased an early version of its first all-electric experimental aircraft, the X-57 Maxwell, on Friday at its lesser-known aeronautics lab in the California desert.
Adapted 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.
After attaching the two largest of 14 electric motors that will ultimately propel the plane — powered by specially designed lithium-ion batteries — NASA deemed the Maxwell ready for its first public preview.
Even as the plane remains under development, NASA also showed off a newly built simulator that allows engineers and pilots to get a feel of what it will be like to maneuver the finished version of the X-57 in flight.
The Maxwell is the latest in a proud line of experimental aircraft the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has developed over many decades for many purposes, including the bullet-shaped Bell X-1, which first broke the sound barrier, and the X-15 rocket plane flown by Neil Armstrong before he joined the Apollo moon team.
The Maxwell 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.
Those will include standards for airworthiness and safety, as well as for energy efficiency and noise, said Brent Cobleigh, a project manager for NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles.
“We’re focusing on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company,” he said in an interview at the research center. “Our target right now is to fly this airplane in late 2020.”
The final modification — Mod IV — of the aircraft will feature narrower, lighter wings fitted with 14 electric engines: six smaller “lift” props along the leading edge plus two larger “cruise” props at the tip of each wing.
The lift propellers will be activated for take-offs and landings but will retract during the flight’s cruise phase.
Because electric motor systems are more compact and have fewer moving parts than internal-combustion engines, they are simpler to maintain and weigh much less, requiring less energy to fly, Cobleigh explained. They also are quieter than conventional engines.
One challenge is improving battery technology to store more energy to extend the plane’s range, with faster re-charging.
Due to current battery limitations, the Maxwell aircraft’s design is envisioned for use in short-haul flights as an air taxi or commuter plane for a small number of passengers.