Forward-looking: NASA might be best known for its space missions, but the organization isn’t just about rockets. On Friday, it showed off an experimental electric plane, the Maxwell X-57, at its Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.
As reported by Reuters, the plane, which is adapted from an Italian-made, four-seat Tecnam P2006T, has been in development since 2015. Instead of the usual combustion engine, it will use 14 electric cruise motors and be powered by specially designed lithium batteries. Despite its lengthy development time, the X-57 is still at least a year away from its first test flight.
In addition to showcasing the plane, which was delivered to NASA by Empirical Systems Aerospace last month, the agency showed off a new simulator that gives pilots an idea of how the final version of the X-57 will maneuver while in the air.
The plane is currently in the first of its three configurations, called Modification II. The final iteration—Modification IV—will feature narrower, lighter wings. This high-aspect-ratio wing is undergoing structural load tests, which you can read more about here. The X-57 will also use lift propellers for take-offs and landings that will be retracted during the flight’s cruise phase.
“We’re focusing on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company,” said Brent Cobleigh, a project manager for NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. “Our target right now is to fly this airplane in late 2020.”
As with other electric planes, current battery limitations give the X-57 a limited range. It’s currently envisioned for use in short-haul flights, as an air taxi, or as a commuter plane for a small number of passengers.
Back in August, Norway’s first electric plane, the Alpha Electro G2, lost power as it was coming into land and crashed into a lake.