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As Solar Impulse 2 continues on the final leg of a fuel-free round-the-world tour, NASA have revealed details of their own experimental electric aeroplane, complete with fourteen electrical motors.

X-57 is the first experimental X-Plane in a decade, and it received its number from the U.S. Air Force.  Engineers working directly with the electric plane dubbed it ‘Maxwell’ in honour of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and his groundbreaking work in electromagnetism. 

The latest addition to the family features a newly designed wing, much longer and skinnier than that of a conventional plane, and 14 electric motors, 12 along the leading edge for take-off and landing, and one on each wing tip for use at cruise altitude.

Speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics annual Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said: “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 area of aviation.”

The first X-Plane, X-1, is noted for becoming the world’s first supersonic aeroplane, breaking the sound barrier in 1947.  In contrast, the ultimate aim of the latest X-Plane is to demonstrate the abilities of advanced technologies to reduce fuel use, emissions and noise, and accelerating their introduction to the wider market place.

The first iteration of the plane is to be built by NASA’s Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology Operations Research team as part of a four-year flight demonstrator plan, and will be based around modifying an Italian-designed, twin-engine, light aircraft already in existence.  The original wing and the two current gas-fuelled piston engines will be replaced by the specially designed wing and electrical motors.

Powered only by batteries, Maxwell will be an emission-free aircraft, with the potential for reducing the demand on lead-based aviation fuels that are still in use by the industry.  In addition to this, by incorporating several quiet motors along each wing and distributing electrical power amongst them, the amount of energy needed to fly a small aircraft at a cruise speed of 175mph could be cut to a fifth of conventional aircraft, while noise pollution would be almost eliminated.

The X-57 research started as part of the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Transformative Aeronautics Program’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions project, with the flight demonstrations being performed as part of the Flight Demonstration Concepts project in the Integrated Aviation Systems Program.

Photo: NASA Graphic / NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.

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