NASA Pushes Toward Electric Flight by 2018

The X-57, NASA’s latest experimental aircraft, is a small passenger plane with electric motors powered by lithium-ion battery cells. It’s based on the Tecnam P2006T, a four-seat plane made in Italy. NASA has replaced the original wing and twin engines with an array of fourteen propellers across a custom-designed wing. The motors at each wingtip provides 60 kW each, for cruising at altitude, while a dozen smaller 11 kW motors placed along the length of the wing are employed for takeoff and landing. The electric motors are powered by an array of 18,650 COTS battery cells. Sean Clarke, NASA co-principal investigator, explained, “We don’t have access to any fancy space technologies. It’s the same battery technology the automotive industry is using.”

NASA's experimental X-57 electric plane
Photo: NASA

NASA’s schedule for the X-57 is to begin test flights in early 2018. With the constant progress in battery energy density, NASA’s engineers foresee aviation manufacturers integrating the technology within ten years. They see the X-57 as an opportunity to test ideas, including hybrid electric/liquid fuel power, controlling peak power output, and new chassis designs. Clarke said, “This is an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and rethink some of the old assumptions.”

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