A view of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell electric aircraft

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The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA for short – is about to introduce its first battery-electric aircraft. For an agency known for pioneering space travel, this is a rare glimpse into the agency’s aerospace space.


What does the first A mean in NASA?

ARTEMIS launch by NASA

Photo: NASA

Yes, the same NASA that just launched Artemis is also responsible for aeronautics research as detailed above. The first A in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is proof of that, meaning NASA has legal authority to conduct scientific research on things like supersonic flight and zero-emission aircraft.

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It is also worth noting that prior to NASA’s formation on October 1, 1958, there was a National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was formed and incorporated into NASA on March 3, 1915. NASA’s overarching mission statement is:

“The Aviation Advisory Board is tasked with overseeing and directing the scientific study of flight problems with a view to their practical resolution.”

Significant NACA work products included compressors for propeller warbirds, the airfoil for the P-51D Mustang, and original supersonic flight research. Today’s NASA builds on that legacy with work in the 1970s and 1980s on winglets fitted to the Boeing 747-400, and later builds on it with wing tip development.

NASA has designed no fewer than 62 X-Planes. These X-planes range from the X-1, the plane that Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier to unmanned aerial vehicles, to the X-62 VISTA, used to test fighter aircraft systems on a modified F-16 Viper fighter plane.

X-57 Maxwell explained

NASA X-57 Maxwell in ground test

Photo: NASA

Within this broad span of NASA innovation and testing with X-Planes lies the X-57 Maxwell, NASA’s first battery-electric aircraft. Maxwell will test new lithium-ion (Li-Ion) battery packs that will be installed in the aircraft cabin.

According to NASA, the X-57 is named Maxwell in honor of James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell pioneered the theory of electromagnetism, which paved the way for Einstein’s special theory of relativity and Planck’s formulation of quantum mechanics. So yeah, a little bit of space science mixed into this aeronautics project. The name comes from the project investigator Sean C. Clarke.

The Maxwell is based on the Tecnam P2006T aircraft with a lightweight aluminum airframe. According to Tecnam

“This twin-engine, constant-speed propeller, retractable landing gear aircraft offers a ‘complex’ training environment at a fraction of the cost of its competitors.”

Therefore, the P2006T can be equipped with modern avionics such as Garmin multifunction displays with two screens and integrated autopilot. By retrofitting the P2006T with battery-electric propulsion, NASA is working toward a zero-emissions airframe for certification testing. According to an Oct. 19 statement by Sarah Mann of NASA Armstrong Public Affairs:

The main objective of the X-57 project is to share the aircraft’s electric propulsion design, airworthiness process and technology with industry, standardization bodies and regulators to inform certification approaches for fully electric propulsion in emerging electric aircraft markets.

Furthermore, according to a separate NASA Armstrong fact sheet;

The X-57 team uses a “design driver” as a technical challenge to drive lessons learned and best practices. This design driver includes a 500 percent increase in efficiency in high-speed cruising, zero in-flight CO2 emissions and a flight that is much quieter for the community on the ground.

The reduction of pollutant emissions such as carbon dioxide and noise is part of the goal.

NASA has conducted extensive ground testing of the X-57. The batteries were tested on the ground prior to installation in the airframe to ensure the X-57 had enough power for flight. This is part of a pre-flight airworthiness check. Additionally, as part of these tests, the Cruise motors in the nacelles above were placed in a dynamometer, a speed tester for electric motors, to ensure the correct and safe parameters were maintained before the first flight.

Four stages of modification

x-57-litho-print-v4_Page2 - NASA Explainer on the X-57 Maxwell

Graphics: NASA

It is worth noting that the X-57 Maxwell is currently only in stage two of four of the modification. According to a data sheet from NASA and the brochure above, Modification I was a ground drive test on a tractor-trailer. Modification II is an integration test where the Tecnam P2006T’s internal combustion engines are replaced with battery electric engines – and these are flight tested first.

Modification III is to convert the wing to a high aspect, low ratio wing. At this point, the electric motors will be moved to the wingtips, and flight testing will focus on the efficiency of high-speed flight.

X-57 Maxwell illustration

Graphics: NASA

As shown in the graph above, Modification IV 12 adds small electric motors to give the wing more lift at slow speeds. The propellers on these retract at high speed to maximize efficiency.

Pre-flight system testing is key to airworthiness

As CJ Bixby, chief engineer at Armstrong Flight Research Center, explained on the NASA podcast Small Steps, Giant Leaps:

“So your system can be on the ramp, engines running, it’s in perfect working order, but it’s not airworthy unless everything else is fine. And so we want all these things to be in order and the system and its components to be in a condition for safe operation at an acceptable level of risk.”

Bixby went on to explain that NASA encourages its engineers to engage in “systems-level thinking,” or how a subsystem that an engineer is responsible for fits into the systems — both when it’s fully functional and when it’s abnormal behaves. This thinking, says Bixby, “highlights some of the unexpected and unanticipated behaviors and helps you find those dangers” to mitigate and fix.

More battery electric aircraft in development

Harbour_Air_ePlane_2021Apr_5291 - Harbor Air's ePlane flies over Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Photo: Harbor Air seaplanes

It goes without saying that other battery-electric aircraft are currently being developed – and tested. For example, as noted above, Canada has a private battery-powered electric seaplane in the works. Harbor Air uses a Magnix 750 hp (559 kW) Magni500 electric engine mated to a 1957 de Havilland of Canada Beaver. It recently made its first point-to-point flight to a static exhibit at a museum open house in Victoria, British Columbia. The goal is to develop a safe, zero-emission commercial aircraft for Harbor Air service by summer 2024.

Embraer electrical demonstrator
The all-electric demonstrator is just part of Embraer’s ambitious ESG goals. Photo: Embraer

The Brazilian Embraer is also testing a battery-electric aircraft. In their case, they are using an EMB-203 Ipanema to test the technology for future use on regional routes.

REGENT in the United States is working on a battery electric Seaglider. This aircraft flies in ground effect with the financial support of Hawaiian Airlines and can serve as a fast ferry if necessary.

Eviation's Alice achieves milestone with maiden flight of all-electric commuter aircraft
Photo: Eviation

Then there is eviction. Recently Alice from Eviation had her first flight. Alice already has 25 orders from Germany’s EVIA AERO and a number of other operators, including United Airlines, cargo airline DHL and regional airline Cape Air. It helps if the plane costs less to operate than traditional options for flights with up to nine passengers . Despite this, Alice needs further flight tests before she can be certified to carry paying passengers.

There are serious developers working on the electrification of flight. Therefore, NASA must help develop certification processes for maximum safety in the air.

Are you enthusiastic about battery-electric flying? Let us know in the comments.

Sources: NASA Small Steps, Giant Leaps Podcast, NASA X-57 Maxwell data sheet, Tecnam P2006T website

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