It might look like it was designed by a six-year-old, with 18 motors crammed onto a too-thin wing, but the Hybrid-Electric Integrated Systems Testbed (HEIST) experimental wing demonstrator could be the future of electric aircraft. A key component of NASA'S Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech) project, it is designed to test whether electric propulsion can allow for a tighter wing design leading to greater efficiency and safety.
Beginning in 2014, the LEAPTech project is a joint venture of NASA Langley Research, Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero), and Joby Aviation. ESAero is the prime contractor for HEIST, which will be tested over the coming months. A 31-ft (9.4-m) composite wing section with 18 electric motors powered by lithium iron phosphate batteries installed on it will be mounted on a truck that will race at speeds of up to 70 mph (113 km/h) across a dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
According to NASA, the number of engines will allow for better airflow by forcing air over the wings, which reduces drag while increasing lift, so the wings can be narrower. In addition, the motors can be throttled individually for more fine-tuned configuration. The hope is that this will lead to a better ride along with lower energy consumption and noise.
The next step will be a piloted demonstrator X-plane under the NASA Transformative Aeronautics Concepts program, which will replace the engine and wings on an Italian-built Tecnam P2006T with the LEAPTech configuration. NASA says that using a production aircraft will make performance comparisons easier by allowing engineers to use an unmodified P2006T as a baseline. It hopes to have the X-plane demonstrator in the air within a couple of years.
"LEAPTech has the potential to achieve transformational capabilities in the near-term for general aviation aircraft, as well as for transport aircraft in the longer-term," says Langley aerodynamicist Mark Moore.