Hugo Britt THOMAS
NASA Is Testing Its First All-electric Aircraft
December 2, 2021
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  • As world leaders gathered at the COP26 Summit to discuss climate change, NASA has been doing its part to decarbonize the aviation industry. This year, NASA started testing the X-57 Maxwell, the first electric plane that runs exclusively on battery power. The success of the X-57 Maxwell could have big implications for the aviation industry, which is seeking to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

    Here’s how the X-57 Maxwell works, what hurdles this new technology still faces, and what its success could mean for air travel in the future. 

    What Is the X-57 Maxwell?

    The X-57 Maxwell is an Italian Tecnam P2006T aircraft that has been converted to run only on battery power. This small two-seater aircraft has significant modifications to allow the craft to fly efficiently. For instance, the wings are thinner than usual airplane wings. They are also lined with 12 electric motors that have propellers that help lift the vehicle off the ground. Two larger engines aid cruising; when the motors aren’t in use, they fold in to help decrease drag. 

    The X-57 Maxwell is anticipated to have a flight range of 100 miles and a cruising speed of 172 mph. Likewise, it will have a maximum flight time of around 40 minutes. This may sound relatively short; however, the aim of the X-57 project isn’t to replace all international air travel with electric planes overnight.  

    “The principal goals of the X-57 project are to share the X-57 design and airworthiness process with regulators and standards organizations; and to establish the X-57 as a reference platform for integrated approaches of distributed electric propulsion technologies,” explained NASA. 

    This five-year project is expected to culminate in the spring of 2022 when the X-57 Maxwell will take its first flight. Currently, the X-57 is still going through a number of different testing phases to make sure the design and technology are safe and ready for flight. 

    Testing the X-57 Maxwell

    The X-57 Maxwell has gone through rigorous testing, including wind tunnel testing in 2020. During the wind tunnel testing, which took part over two weeks, the X-57 hardware was exposed to wind speeds from zero to over 90 knots, with 14 hours of powered propeller operation. 

    From there, NASA proceeded with high-voltage ground testing, marking the transition from component design and prototyping to operating the vehicle. High-voltage ground testing used the battery support system to draw power from a hefty, high-voltage power supply, seeking to further develop the X-plane’s battery control system. 

    “Testing will start with low power to check the startup and shutdown sequences and ensure that the new motor control software boots up and controls the motors as expected,” reported Thomas Insights. 

    High-voltage testing concluded in July 2021. NASA reported that the tests successfully resulted in the propellers spinning for the first time with electric power, a milestone for the project. Next, the X-57 Maxwell will submit to verification and validation testing as the model moves closer to flight. 

    Implications for the Aviation Industry

    The X-57 is limited in how far it can fly, but the implications for the aviation industry are massive. The potential of electric planes is a win for consumers, airline companies, and the planet alike. McKinsey estimates that fuel accounts for 20–30% of operational costs; and, every kilogram of kerosene produces 3.15 kilograms of carbon dioxide.   

    Airline passengers are clearly concerned about the impact their flying habits have on the planet, and companies moving products through the supply chain can reduce their carbon footprint through the use of electric planes. The potential the X-57 Maxwell presents for the future of supply chains, travel, and decarbonization is very promising.