NASA X-57 ‘Maxwell’ to Usher in Electric Propulsion Aircraft

The X-57 Maxwell will push the boundaries of aeronautics by creating a clean-air, low noise aircraft. (NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA is engineering an all-electric aircraft capable of flying people and cargo great distances as a futuristic, clean-energy concept becomes a reality during the coming decade.

NASA’s first piloted X-plane in two decades, the X-57 Maxwell will push the boundaries of aeronautics by creating a clean-air, low noise aircraft. Using a modified Italian Tecnam P2006T high-winged aircraft, NASA has removed its propellers will install an experimental wing with a reduced surface area.

When testing is completed in 2020, the nearly 3,000-pound X-57 may be able to fly at a maximum altitude of 14,000-feet. Its fastest air speed is expected at about 172 m.p.h. during a cruising altitude of 8,000-feet.

A modified Italian Tecnam P2006T wil become NASA’s first electric powered aircraft. (NASA)

Test pilots and engineers are now preparing for those first flights this autumn by working with an X-57 simulator. Pilots are learning how the unflown aircraft may react in flight and understanding possible failure modes.

“Two of our test pilots have been flying it actively, and the controls group here at Armstrong is critical in getting the simulator working in this interactive way,” X-57 Principle Investigator Sean Clarke said. “The chief engineer, Matt Redifer, and I are down here regularly, looking at the performance and making sure that the fidelity is high enough that we’re getting good data from it.”

It was Clarke who suggested the aircraft’s nickname Maxwell, after the 19th century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. He pioneered the theory of electromagnetism.

Powered by lithium-ion batteries located in two 410-pound cases, the Maxwell’s design is unique with 14 electric motors powering seven propellers on each wing. Once a take-off speed of 67 m.p.h. is reached, the aircraft climbs to a planned cruising altitude. The pilot will then shut down the 12 smaller engines along the wing’s edge.

It is the heat generated by the electric motors which have caused engineers to redesign each of the motors housing. To solve the heat build-up, NASA engineers at Glenn Research Center created a special skin around the aircraft’s motors to cool them without altering the design.

The new skin design was validated during a February wind tunnel test where engineers subjected one of the motors to various flight conditions. Those test results will soon be incorporated into the design.

NASA test pilots are learning how to fly the X-57 with the aide of a simulator in California. (NASA)

“The X-57 designation was assigned by the U.S. Air Force, which manages the history-making process, following a request from NASA,” The agency noted in a release. “The first X-plane was the X-1, which in 1947 became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound.”

This X-aircraft is only a test bed for new technologies and will not be used for commercial purposes. NASA hopes aerospace companies will develop their own aircraft designs based on the Maxwell’s end results.

“I don’t expect anyone to go out and copy one of these and build it and fly it,” NASA Langley Research Center X-57 engineer Dr. Nicholas Borer said. “They might use the technology and the data from this to be able to enable new electric aircraft to fly using this technology.”

(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)