Image: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc. Graphics: Vicky Leta

NASA’s X-57 Maxwell team is a winner of the 2023 Gizmodo Science Fair for designing a fully electric propulsion aircraft and new aeronautic technologies in the process.

Can an experimental electric aircraft make aviation greener?

The Results

The X-57 Maxwell is a fully electric airplane and a demonstration of new technologies that could be deployed across air travel. Originally, the team’s plan was to create a high-lift wing that could operate as well in the air as it could during takeoff and landing. When they achieved that wing design, the team set their sights on a bigger goal: designing and flying an electric airplane boasting the novel wing plan.

The project draws its power (and its novelty) from a unique system of 14 propellers, seven per wing, including one on each wingtip. The propellers are air-cold, meaning they don’t require an additional liquid cooling system to stay cool.

The wing design was crafted to make the plane just as efficient at cruise altitudes while also generating plenty of lift on takeoff and landing. The propellers are powered by two lithium ion battery packs that sit in the main cabin. In the final design, all but the wingtip propellers will fold up at cruise.

X-57 Maxwell Electric Airplane Flight Simulation

In anticipation of the X-57’s first flight, the team conducted thermal testing of the motors in February 2023. Takeoff is slated for some time this year and will occur at Edwards Air Force Base in California; according to pilot Tim Williams, the flight should last about 20 minutes.

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During that first flight, NASA researchers will be evaluating the airplane’s rigging and confirming it can reach altitude, get close to a stall speed, and land safely back on the ground. Simple enough, right?

Why NASA Did It

“We really want to see this technology made more available to more people,” said Sean Clarke, principal investigator on the X-57 project. “I want to see aviation in general move in a direction that uses less resources, that gets more utility with fewer impacts on the environment. And these electric propulsion technologies really provide some exciting opportunities for that.”

“There’s only one way to prove out that you can take a motor and a motor controller, tie it to a prop, and put it in an air environment where you have gyroscopic loads, and then push a lot of forces all over this stuff, and be safe about it,” said Tim Williams, pilot of the X-57. “We’re going to go up.”

Why X-57 Maxwell Is a Winner

Electric propulsion is generally cleaner, greener, and cheaper than combustion engines. Flying with jet fuel adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The technology to decarbonize air travel doesn’t yet exist, but even if only small aircraft could be fully electric, it could reduce the huge carbon footprints of the world’s wealthiest, who frequently travel in private jets. The X-57 Maxwell is an important first step in developing electric propulsion tech. Its batteries were developed based on the ones used in remote-controlled planes, Williams noted. Now, those batteries have been enlarged and tinkered with to get a full-scale, crewed aircraft off the ground.

Though NASA isn’t about to launch its own airline, the lessons learned and technologies created in the process of designing X-57 could help other companies employ new wing and battery designs in their fleets.

What’s Next

The imminent issue is the first flight, which has already been delayed a few times. Besides the flight—which will involve Mod II of the aircraft—the X-57 team must complete Mods III and IV.

Should all go well, the X-57’s propeller system will have shown a way to increase airflow and generate lift even when the plane is flying slowly. These principles have already been tested and modeled, but it will be another matter entirely to demonstrate them in the skies over California.

The Team

Nick Borer, deputy principal investigator; Sean Clarke, principal investigator; Heather Maliska, project manager; Vince Schultz, deputy project manager; and Tim Williams, pilot.

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