NASA hybrid electric research plane gets new name

NASA has begun testing new propulsion technology using an experimental plane now designated the X-57 and nicknamed Maxwell, the agency said.

The X-57 is the agency´s first X-plane designation in a decade has 14 electric motors that turn propellers, demonstrating one way electric propulsion can be integrated with aircraft structures to achieve more efficient, quieter, and more environmentally friendly aviation compared to conventional aircraft.

The agency said that as many as five larger transport-scale X-planes are planned as part of the initiative. Its goals — like the X-57 — include demonstrating advanced technologies to reduce fuel use, emissions and noise, and thus accelerate their introduction to the marketplace.

The X-57 number designation was assigned by the US Air Force. The first X-plane was the X-1, which in 1947 became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound.

NASA researchers working directly with the hybrid electric airplane also chose to name the aircraft Maxwell to honor James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th century Scottish physicist who did groundbreaking work in electromagnetism.

As part of a four-year flight demonstrator plan, NASA´s scalable convergent electric propulsion operations research project will build the X-57 by modifying a recently procured, Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft. Its 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 take offs and landings, and one larger motor on each wing tip for use while at cruise altitude.

NASA said its aeronautical innovators hope to validate the idea that distributing electric power across a number of motors integrated with an aircraft in this way will result in a five-time reduction in the energy required for a private plane to cruise at 175 mph.