NASA developing fully electric plane, the X-57 “Maxwell”

NASA is developing a fully electric plane, dubbed the X-57 “Maxwell”, which the space agency says could be on the runway within four years.

Maxwell is a single-seater experimental airplane with propellers powered by 14 electric motors integrated into a uniquely new kind of wing.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane’s specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. Credits: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.

NASA’s Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology Operations Research project will build the X-57 by modifying a recently procured, Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft.

According to a statement by NASA: “Its original wing and two gas-fueled piston engines will be replaced with a long, skinny wing embedded with 14 electric motors – 12 on the leading edge for take offs and landings, and one larger motor on each wing tip for use while at cruise altitude.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a speech: “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,”

The first X-plane was the X-1 – which in 1947 became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound.

“Dozens of X-planes of all shapes, sizes and purposes have since followed – all of them contributing to our stature as the world’s leader in aviation and space technology,” said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.

“Planes like the X-57, and the others to come, will help us maintain that role.”

The scientists decided to name the aircraft “Maxwell” after James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th century Scottish physicist who did groundbreaking work in electromagnetism.

The airplane is part of NASA’s $790 million “New Aviation Horizons” initiative.