Back in February, NASA announced that it intends to bring back the X-planes, a series of experimental aircraft designed to test out new technologies that dates back to the first plane to break the sound barrier in 1947. Now the newest member of the family, dubbed the X-57, has been revealed. With 14 electric motors driving 14 propellors, the X-57 is designed to test greener propulsion technologies.
Nicknamed "Maxwell", the X-57 is the first X-plane that NASA has designated in a decade, and it marks the beginning of New Aviation Horizons, a 10-year initiative that aims to kickstart the general aviation industry's adoption of technologies that reduce fuel consumption, emissions and noise pollution.
Each of Maxwell's specially-designed wings will have seven propellors, each powered by their own electric motor. All up that's 14 propellors and 14 electric motors, 12 of which are positioned on the leading edge of the wings and will be used for taking off and landing, while a larger motor at each wing tip will be used at cruising altitude. That's a total of six motors less than the original HEIST wing design it appears to be based on.
The prototype's key mission is to demonstrate the energy efficiency of electric motors, specifically how spreading the power among multiple motors could allow the plane to consume just one-fifth of the energy that a normal private plane would while cruising at 175 mph (282 km/h).
Other benefits of the X-57 include the elimination of carbon emissions thanks to battery power, and as a result, decreasing the demand for the lead-based fuels which are still common in the aviation industry. The increased efficiency is predicted to reduce the operational cost by as much as 40 percent for small aircraft, and since the fuel consumption associated with flying at higher speeds will be negated, flight times may be shortened. And of course, quieter electric motors means less noise for people on the ground.
Maxwell is named after James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th century Scottish physicist famous for his research into electromagnetism. To build the prototype, NASA's Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology Operations Research (SCEPTOR) project will modify a Tecnam P2006T light aircraft, as part of a four-year flight demonstrator plan.
The X-57 will eventually be joined by up to five larger, transport-scale X-planes, which will also be designed to test greener technologies and speed their introduction into the marketplace.