Once again, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is on a pathbreaking mission to develop an electric propulsion-powered aircraft, which would be quieter, more efficient, and environmentally friendly than today’s commuter aircraft.
NASA’s X-57 project is an independent project to develop the X-57 Maxwell experimental aircraft. The unique feature of the aircraft is the folding propellers of the lift motors.
Instead of two conventional engines, it has 14 electric motors. Two of them, cruise with fixed blades, and the rest of the 12 blades (six on each side) can be folded. According to NASA, it successfully completed the wind tunnel testing at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
“Positioned along the leading edge of X-57’s cruise-efficient wing, these motors and propellers will be utilized first during takeoff, providing lift augmentation to the X-Plane at low aircraft speeds,” NASA said in a statement.
“Once X-57 goes into cruise mode, these motors will deactivate, and the propeller blades will fold inward to prevent creating additional drag while two larger electric cruise motors remain active on the wingtips. Then, when it’s time to land, the smaller high-lift motors will reactivate, unfolding the propeller blades to create the appropriate lift for landing at approach speed,” it added.
The test was conducted to gather valuable operational and performance data for flight conditions, using two of the full-scale propeller assemblies provided by Empirical Systems Aerospace.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the first X-plane designation in a decade during his keynote speech in June 2016 at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) annual Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition in Washington.
“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 had said.
The project started with a prototype of the Italian high-winged, twin-engined all-metal light aircraft, Tecnam P2006T under Modification I. Under Modification II, gas-powered engines were replaced by two electric motors to turn the propellers. The rear passenger seats and cargo area were used to hold the X-57 battery packs used to power the electric motors. The new electric propulsion system was tested under Modification II.
Under Modification III, the original wing was replaced with a smaller, skinnier “high aspect ratio” wing, changing the look of the aircraft. Two large electric motors from Modification II were moved to the wingtips, and 12 pods were placed under the wing that will eventually hold smaller electric motors. X-57’s high-speed cruise efficiency would be tested under this stage of Modification III.
Finally, under Modification IV, 12 high-lift motors and propellers into the final configuration of X-57 will be placed. Under the wind tunnel test, the hardware was exposed to wind speeds from zero to over 90 knots, with 14 hours of powered propeller operation.
Weighing 3,000 pounds, the futuristic aircraft can reach a maximum operational altitude of 14,000 feet cruising at a speed of 172 mph (at 8,000 feet). As the aircraft successfully folded and returned the blades to the working condition, the aircraft is now ready for test flights.