Earlier this year, NASA announced that it intends to bring back the X-planes, a series of experimental aircraft that were designed to test new technologies. The X-plane series dates back to the very first plane to break the sound barrier in 1947. Now, NASA is delivering on that intention by unveiling its newest aviation experiment.
NASA has unveiled an electric plane project, and the new aircraft is called the X-57. This initiative is one that the American space agency hopes will demonstrate that electric-powered aviation can be quiet, quick, and environmentally friendly.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden revealed the agency’s first X-plane designation during his keynote speech Friday in Washington at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) annual Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition.
The future of aviation?
Nicknamed “Maxwell” after 19th century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, the X-57 is the first X-plane that NASA has designed in a decade. It marks the beginning of New Aviation Horizons, a 10-year initiative that aims to kickstart the general aviation industry’s adoption of modern technologies that intend to reduce fuel consumption, emissions, and noise pollution.
“With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities – which is a key part of our 10-year-long NEW Aviation Horizons initiative – the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” said Bolden.
The X-57, which is constructed using a modified Italian-designed plane, will have a skinny wing with a total of 14-battery-powered motors. 12 of these motors are positioned on the front edge of the wings and will be used for taking off and landing. A larger motor at each wingtip will be used at cruising altitude.
The X-57’s main objective is to effectively demonstrate the energy efficiency of electric motors, specifically how spreading the power among multiple motors could allow the plane to consume only one-fifth of the energy that a normal, gas-powered plane would use while cruising at 175 miles per hour.
Since the plane won’t run on gasoline, the plane will not produce any exhaust from burnt fossil fuels. As a result, this could potentially decrease the demand for the lead-based fuels which are still common in the aviation industry. This increased efficiency is predicted to reduce operational costs by up to 40 percent for small aircraft. Since fuel consumption associated with flying at higher speeds will be negated, flight times could potentially be shortened. Additionally, quieter electric motors mean less noise pollution for people on the ground.
NASA might make more than one aircraft in the X-57 program. “As many as five larger transport-scale X-planes are also planned as part of the initiative,” said Bolden. These larger planes will also be designed to test greener technologies and speed their introduction into the marketplace.
The power of clean energy in the aviation industry has been in the spotlight lately, as the solar-powered “Solar Impulse 2” aircraft took off from New York’s JFK airport on Monday. The plane, which intends to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, is on the latest leg of a record-shattering solar-powered journey around the world meant to showcase the power of renewable energy.
If the X-57 project is successful, NASA says that the technology applied to get Maxwell in the air can be translated to the private sector – something that would most certainly change air travel as we know it.