The American X-plane series has a long and storied history stretching all the way back to the Bell X-1 that made supersonic flight a reality. NASA, the Air Force, and other parts of the government have used X-planes to explore the flight mechanics of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), movable wings, and much more. Now, NASA is working on the first manned X-plane in decades, the all-electric X-57 Maxwell.
NASA started working on the X-57 in 2015, but it’s not building its electric plane from the ground up. The team started with a Tecnam P2006T twin-engine propeller plane, which it is modifying in stages. NASA hasn’t flown the aircraft yet, but it has deemed the X-57 ready for its public debut. The press was allowed to view the X-57 last week at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards Air Force Base.
The X-57 is currently in its “Mod II” configuration, which is the first featuring entirely electric flight hardware. The plane has electric cruise motors where two combustion motors were in the original aircraft. Mod III and IV will complete the X-57’s transformation from a noisy combustion plane to a quieter, more efficient electric one.
Like an electric car, the X-57 will carry a bank of lithium-ion batteries to power its motors. NASA chose to use a small propeller plane for the project because the aerodynamics are more favorable for an electric aircraft that also uses propellers. NASA doesn’t expect an electric plane like the X-57 to be as fast or have as much range as a jet, but it could be ideal for short-haul flights.
NASA is currently testing the Mod III wing, which features a high-aspect-ratio design and space for additional electric propellers. With the Mod III upgrade, the current pair of electric motors will move to the wingtips. In its final configuration, each wing will have six small propellers along the leading edge along with a larger propeller at the tip. The plane will use all the motors during takeoff, but it only needs the larger ones during cruise.
NASA hopes the X-57 project can contribute important advances to the aviation industry, but it’ll have to take to the skies before that can happen. The agency currently hopes to fly the X-57 in its final configuration later in 2020.
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