NASA recently unveiled details of its first experimental aircraft in 10 years, the X-57 Maxwell. According to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, the X-57 will fly next year to kick off NASA’s demonstrator plan. He describes it as an experimental aircraft being developed by NASA, intended to demonstrate technology to reduce fuel use, emissions, and noise. The X-57 will be powered only by batteries, eliminating carbon emissions.
“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,” Bolden said.
The design of the aircraft grew out of a NASA project called Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech), which was intended to replace wings and engines from the Italian-built Tecnam P2006T aircraft.
The LEAPTech project began in 2014 when researchers from NASA Langley Research Center and NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center partnered with two California companies, one of which was responsible for the design and manufacture of the aircraft’s electric motors, propellers, and carbon fiber wing section.
Over the course of 2015, NASA researchers performed ground testing of the 31-foot-span, carbon composite wing section with 18 electric motors mounted on a specially modified truck. The truck experiment was a precursor to the development of the X-57.
Over the next year or so, a team led by NASA engineer Sean Clarke will systematically retrofit the Tecnam P2006T until it becomes the X-57. They’ll start by replacing the pistons and mechanics that currently control the wing’s propellers and flaps with LEAPTech.
“We need to evaluate how this compares to the original engines,” says Clarke. He expects they’ll be doing flight tests with that configuration by next fall. “After that, we’ll take those baseline wings off the aircraft and put the experimental wing back on,” he says.
The X-57 is part of NASA’s New Aviation Horizons initiative, which will also produce up to five large-scale aircraft including a supersonic jet which also plans on making use of composites.