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Mobility

227: X-plane NASA’s ‘moonshot’ for aviation.

Problem:

Current air transportation technologies require enormous amounts of fossil fuels and emit enormous amounts of carbon.

Solution:

NASA is working on the X57 Maxwell , an all-electric aircraft powered only by batteries, along with a plan to build even more ambitious X-planes over the next decade.

Compared with conventional aircraft, the X-57 team, made up of engineers from three NASA centers – Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, has set a goal of using five times less energy and – if powered by electricity generated from renewable sources – producing zero inflight carbon emissions.

Their solution is called a “Distributed Electric Propulsion” system. Owing to the fact that the electric motors are less powerful than the original combustion engines they are replacing, it will take fourteen of them to propel the X-57 during takeoff and landing. But once the plane is in the air and at cruising altitude, the twelve motors in the centre will shut down to save energy. The center motors will use folding centrifugal propellers, so that once they are no longer rotating, they will lay flat against their nacelles to reduce drag. When additional power is needed, they will extend as the motors are spun back up.

The X-57 Maxwell program began in 2017. Modification I, using an 18-engine truck-mounted wing, took place at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, using a truck bed, acronym HeIST (Hybrid electric Integrated Systems Testbed), capable of accommodating systems that use up to 100 kilowatts of power.

By September 2018, the first Joby Aviation JM-X57 electric cruise motor were mounted with controllers, batteries and new cockpit displays at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Construction of the ESAero high aspect ratio, low drag composite wing was then almost finished, to fly the Mod III by mid-2020.

Built by Xperimental, the cruise-optimized wing load testing was completed by September 2019, to ±120% of design load limit, verifying free movement of control surfaces and vibration testing for flutter predictions. After motor ground runs, ESAero delivered the Mod 2 X-plane with electric motors replacing the original piston engines to NASA on the first week of October 2019. flight tests were originally planned to begin in the third quarter of 2020. While the agency’s response to COVID-19 has slowed or halted several major projects,in April 2021, NASA announced that it will soon begin high-voltage functional ground testing, while the twelve  propellers are currently being tested in NASA’s Low-Speed Aeroacoustic Wind Tunnel. Flight tests with the plane in its final configuration are still expected before the end of the year.

Discover Solution 228: Why wilderness corridors are so important.

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