NASA is testing new propulsion technology using an experimental airplane designated the X-57, as the agency works to make small aircraft more efficient. With its 14 electric motors turning propellers and integrated into a uniquely designed wing, the plane is part of a four-year flight demonstrator plan, NASA’s Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Operations Research project. The agency will build the X-57 by modifying an Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft.
Nicknamed “Maxwell,” to honor James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th-century Scottish physicist who did groundbreaking work in electromagnetism, the X-57 was assigned its designation by the U.S. Air Force (which manages the history-making process) following a NASA request. The first X-plane was the X-1, the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound, in 1947.
At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) annual Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition in Washington, D.C., NASA Administrator Charles Bolden noted the agency’s first X-plane designation in a decade during his keynote speech. “The general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” Bolden said.
The X-57’s original wing and two gas-fueled piston engines will be replaced with a long, skinny wing embedded with 14 electric motors—12 on the leading edge for takeoffs and landings, and one larger motor on each wingtip for use while at cruise altitude.
According to NASA researchers, the idea is that distributing electric power across a number of motors integrated with an aircraft will result in a five-time reduction in the energy required for cruise at 175 mph. The X-57 will be powered by batteries only, eliminating carbon emissions and demonstrating how demand would shrink for lead-based aviation fuel still in use by GA.
The technology could potentially reduce flight times and fuel usage, as well as reduce operational costs for small aircraft by as much as 40%. Electric propulsion essentially eliminates the penalty for cruising at higher speeds.
As many as five larger transport-scale X-planes are planned as part of the initiative. The goal—like the X-57’s—includes demonstrating advanced technologies to reduce fuel use, emissions and noise, and accelerate their introduction to the marketplace.
Learn more about NASA’s electric propulsion research at go.nasa.gov/1S55SPP.