The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has developed a number of experimental aircraft over many decades for many purposes. The agency has now unveiled an early version of its first all-electric experimental aircraft, the X-57 “Maxwell.” The plane, which was delivered to NASA by Empirical Systems Aerospace last month, was displayed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles.
The Maxwell will be NASA’s first crewed X-plane to be developed in about twenty years. Under development since 2015, the X-57 has been adapted from an Italian-made Tecnam P2006T twin-engine propeller plane. The plane is currently in the first of its three configurations, called Modification II, which is the first featuring entirely electric flight hardware.
The final iteration, Modification IV, will feature narrower, lighter-weight wings and 14 electric engines. Of those, six will be smaller props along the leading edge of each wing designed to lift the aircraft, while two larger “cruise” props will be placed at the tip of each wing. The lift propellers will retract during the flight’s cruise phase, only activating for take-off and landings.
Despite its lengthy development time, the X-57 is still at least a year away from its first test flight. NASA doesn’t expect the electric plane to be as fast or have as much range as a jet, due to current battery limitations. It is hoped that future research will improve battery technology to the point where they can re-charge faster and store more energy to extend the plane’s range. The current design is envisioned for use in short-haul flights as an air-taxi or commuter plane for a small number of passengers.
Along with the electric plane, NASA also unveiled a newly built simulator for the aircraft. Using the simulator, engineers and pilots can get a feel for what maneuvering the finished version of the X-57 will be like in flight.