NASA To Spend Next Several Years Testing Electric Plane X-57 Maxwell


NASA is working on a project called, scalable convergent electric propulsion operations research (or SCEPTOR), to build an electric plane. This could be the first official movement toward emission free flying. The one-seater is called the M-57 Maxwell.

Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft.

Tecnam P2006T Twin-engine Light Aircraft

The plane is named after James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th-century Scottish physicist known for his contributions in the field of electromagnetism.

As shown in the picture, the plane has 14 motors that power 14 separate propellers. The wing is very thin, but the additional props provide more air to make up for it. The thinner wings and many small props reduce weight. All 14 motors would be engaged at takeoff and landing, but once the plane is in the air, only two of the small props can keep it cruising.

At this point, the range would only be about 100 miles. This accounts for up to an hour of air time. Just like other electric vehicles, the plane is limited by battery capacity, but in the long term, as technology advances, range will grow. NASA also has plans for electric planes that seat multiple passengers. Matt Redifer, chief engineer for the project said:

“If batteries continue to be on the same rapid increase in energy density that they have been on over the past 10 years or so, one can envision five to 10 years out in the future the battery technology would be such that this particular aircraft could be enabled for a commercial-type aspect.”

The project is set to take four years. In step one, NASA will convert a Tecnam P2006T, Italian twin-engine light aircraft, to an all-electric plane. Over the course of time, the plane will be converted to the full-fledged M-57 Maxwell.

NASA’s goal is to prove that the 14 motor system is five times more efficient than a standard aircraft. Also, the plane will operate with almost no noise. Commercial aircraft make up 11% of U.S. transportation emissions. With the push for green technology and the issues regarding climate change, the success of NASA’s plan could be monumental to air travel and the environment.

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Source: Green Car Congress, hat tip to sven!

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22 responses to "NASA To Spend Next Several Years Testing Electric Plane X-57 Maxwell"
  1. RedHHR says:

    Looks like a fun little craft.

  2. Stephen D says:

    It will be interesting to see how this will scale up to the larger airliners

  3. ThombDBhomb says:

    They should attract and use lightening strikes to recharge the battery

    1. Steven says:

      No. It doesn’t work like that.

  4. William says:

    Those lightening strikes would need a battery with some amazing advancements in energy storage! Flying directly into thunderheads, in hope of a free recharge, may be a bit intimidating to the risk averse pilots out there! Talk about a bad hair day!

    1. ThombdBhomb says:

      Ok, How about “lightening” strikes? If the plane could shed some weight, it will fly farther.

  5. mhpr262 says:

    Those twelve motor pods and propellers must create a considerable additional drag, even when not running and with the propellers folded.

    1. Pushmi-Pullyu says:

      Yeah, this looks like a Rube Goldberg approach. Fourteen motors? Surely there is some design that’s simpler and more efficient.

  6. jmac says:

    I like the part where the guy says that the new electric motors develop 4 hp per pound of weight which is the same power to weight ratio as turbine engines.

    In the world of radio controlled model airplanes, the electric motor and batteries are taking over from the glow plug engines of the past.

  7. kdawg says:

    Tesla, then Faraday, now Maxwell.

    Who’s going to invent the Einstein electric unicycle?

    1. Pushmi-Pullyu says:

      Don’t forget Nikola!

      Not counting Edison, future EV makers, or wannabes, are gonna have to settle for ever more obscure electrical pioneers.

  8. Speculawyer says:

    This multi-prop plane is an interesting idea that provides some cool advantages. They do have some prototypes that they have up & running.

  9. Four Electrics says:

    A 787 flown five hours consumes 150,000 kWh. At 400 watts/kg that’s 375,000 kg, several times the empty weight of the plane and 3x the maximum landing weight. A biofuel or hydrogen application if ever there were one.

    1. Pushmi-Pullyu says:

      A hydrogen fueled plane isn’t any more practical than a hydrogen fueled car.

      Hydrogen has a high energy to mass ratio, which would be good for keeping an aircraft light (or would if the high pressure tanks weren’t heavy); but it has a terrible volume to energy ratio. Far too much of the plane’s volume would be occupied with fuel tanks for it to have much cargo or passenger capacity.

      1. Ambulator says:

        A hydrogen plane should use liquid hydrogen. It’s still a much higher volume than jet fuel but it might work adequately if nothing better comes along.

    2. arne-nl says:

      Your napkin calculation is worthless because comparing low-grade thermal kWh’s produced by the burning of hydrocarbons with high-grade electric kWh’s is not valid.

      It would be like saying an electric car would need a 600 kWh battery to achieve the range of an ICE car. Electric propulsion is far more efficient.

  10. Mikael says:

    Why don’t they keep it plugged until it takes off? This way you save the energy needed to go 0 to take-off speed.

    1. mhpr262 says:

      I have heard of designs and maybe even prototypes that use electric motors in the wheels to reach take-off speed – much more efficient. In addition this will also allow you to spin up the wheels before touchdown at landings, so you will have much less wear and tear on your tires.

      1. Djoni says:

        I think there is some experiment with pony electric trailer of some kind.
        An airplane consume up to 6% of its take off fuel just taxiing and APU running.
        Next step is to provide some sort of electromagnetic catapult to shoot the airplane airborne saving all the fuel needed to accelerate it.

        1. Mikael says:

          Wireless catapult, of course!
          Could it help smooth landing too, regenerative wireless braking??

      2. Mikael says:

        From what I know there’s actually more wear and tear during taxi than when landing.

  11. Victor says:

    Not only electric but solar airplane making the tour around the world now.