NASA’s electric plane is getting closer to a major first flight

NASA’s electric plane is getting closer to a major first flight

The X-57 Maxwell will serve as a technological arbiter in estimating the viability of electric-powered aircraft.

The more time passes, the more electric vehicles seem to be on their way to completely replacing their thermal-powered ancestors. These new generation machines are not lacking in arguments, both in terms of ecology and ergonomics… at least, when they have four wheels. Because if this mode of propulsion works extremely well for the car, it is much more ambiguous on the side of aviation. And NASA is currently trying to decide.

Since 2016 already, the American space agency has been working on the X-57 Maxwell, a rather special small experimental aircraft. Indeed, it is designed to operate exclusively on electricity; in theory, it would therefore not consume a drop of kerosene, this fuel known for its considerable environmental impact. Despite this limit, the agency estimates that it should be able to fly for about 45 minutes at a cruising speed of more than 250 km/h.

To build its prototype, NASA started with a Tecnam P2006T, a small Italian-made aircraft with perfect measurements for this experiment. The machine was then amputated from its traditional engines which were replaced by two electric motors.

For the record, these were provided by Joby Aviation. This is a start-up that also works in the electric aeronautics segment. Its prototype is also one of the most mature, since it broke the record for distance traveled by an electrical device last summer (see our article).

The first flight is approaching

The machine has just successfully concluded a first series of ground tests. NASA will now install the batteries, one of the very last steps before its maiden flight with a crew on board. It will therefore soon attack a new series of tests which, ideally, will serve as a proof of concept.

Because the X-57 Maxell has no vocation to become a commercial device in the state. It is part of the Electric Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD), a program that aims to study the commercial viability of electric aircraft. The machine has already made some progress in this direction.

“It’s a pathfinder who participates in building expertise that directly influences industry standards,” explains Heather Maliska, who leads the project at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. “The X-57 project has made substantial contributions to research around electric aircraft,” she says.

A form of technological arbitrage

And this exploratory work is very important in the current context. Because even if many companies like Joby Aviation have already made it their business, many doubts remain as to the long-term relevance of these machines. Batteries, in particular, are regularly singled out by critics of this technology. These are indeed objects which remain by definition extremely heavy; a particularly handicapping element in aeronautics for obvious reasons.

Another branch of industry has therefore preferred to bet on a radically different concept by imagining hydrogen-powered devices. This is for example the case of the Supernal project which Hyundai gave news last month (see our article).

NASA will therefore continue to test its X-57 to see if it is possible, but also and above all reasonable to continue on this path. For it is not only a problem of feasibility; these obstacles, several manufacturers have already managed to circumvent them in recent years. The main challenge of this work is above all to determine whether this approach seems viable in terms of logistics and sustainable development.

And in this case, NASA is particularly well placed to answer this question. It is one of the few players who explore this technology without direct financial interest, since it does not intend to sell its machine, unlike the many startups which have made it their business; even if it actively seeks to develop this technology, it will therefore be in a better position to derive pragmatic conclusions on the future of electric aeronautics.

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