The world is on a quest to create cleaner, quieter airplanes that could replace the fuel-guzzling, roaring commercial aircraft in use today.
NASA is leading much of the research and development effort in this area and today they’ve announced an official name for their next X-plane concept: the X-57 “Maxwell.”
Maxwell is a hybrid electric research plane equipped with 14 electric propeller-turning motors located along the wings. The experimental plane will be put through a number of tests over the next four years in an effort to demonstrate that electrical propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient, and environmentally friendly.
During take-off and landing, Maxwell will make use of all 14 motors to create sufficient thrust, but once it’s up in the air it will only use the two larger motors located on the tips of the wings.
NASA engineers believe that this unique design will result in a five-time reduction of the energy required for a small, private planes to cruise at 175 mph.
Maxwell is a result of NASA’s “New Aviation Horizons” initiative: a 10-year program to create a new generation of X-planes that will make use of greener energy, use half as much fuel, and be half as loud as commercial aircraft in use today. In the President’s FY 2017 budget, NASA received $790 million to fund New Aviation Horizons among other similar green-aviation initiatives.
An Electrically Powered Future
Electrical airplanes are sure to change the look of aviation, but if humans plan to continue to fly in the future we’ll have to embrace this new era of flight.
According to some reports, the world only contains enough petroleum resources to last us through the year 2100. And as we get closer to that date, fuel prices are likely to rise higher and higher.
Eventually, we’ll need to wean ourselves off of internal combustion engines and the aircraft that use them. To do that, we’ll need to see innovation in aircraft design, battery technology, solar cells and electrically powered engines themselves.
In addition to NASA, companies like Boeing and Airbus, and even other countries have started investing in this future. Planes like the GL-10, Helios, E-Fan, and Solar Impulse have already demonstrated the feasibility of electric planes.
Even Elon Musk has suggested that he has plans to come up with an electrically powered jet. When asked to talk about his “next great idea” Musk responded, “Well I have been thinking about the vertical takeoff and landing electric jet a bit more. I mean, I think I have something that might close. I’m quite tempted to do something about it.”
NASA’s Maxwell is the first X-plane in a decade, but the agency has plans for as many as five more through New Aviation Horizons. The technologies and knowledge gained through this initiative will be passed on to the private sector with the hope that, eventually, electric airplanes will become commonplace and transform flying as we know it.