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Environment & Science

NASA's X-57 plane could revolutionize commuter air travel




This artist's concept of NASA's X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane's specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use X-57 to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
This artist's concept of NASA's X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane's specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use X-57 to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
NASA Graphic / NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.


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A project from NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California could shake up how we look at commuter travel.

The X-57 or "Maxwell" is NASA Armstrong's latest development in aeronautic technology. It's exclusively propelled by electric power and may prove to be the most efficient model to date. The plane's quiet design may also be a breakthrough in flight. 

Matt Redifer is Chief Engineer for the X-57 plane. He joined Take Two's A Martinez for a preview of the X-57. He also gave us a peek at another plane in the NASA pipeline that could revolutionize long distance flights by reaching sonic speed without creating a sonic boom.

The X-57 at a glance 

This particular configuration looks a little goofy. We're retrofitting an existing twin engine aircraft. We're making the wing long and skinny so it looks like a big fuselage with a long and skinny wing. ... It actually has 14 electric motors. Two on the wingtips and then 12 distributed across the leading edge so it does look a little interesting. 

This artist's concept of NASA's X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane's specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use X-57 to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
This artist's concept of NASA's X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane's specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use X-57 to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
NASA Graphic / NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.

The benefits of going electric

In our case, we're targeting kind of the general aviation aircraft industry. It's actually applying electric motors to increase the overall efficiency of the aircraft. So what we're doing is basically demonstrating how electric propulsion can increase the effici ency of the aircraft.  

One of the neat technologies we can experiment with is all the technologies across the leading edge, we can alter the RPMS and the frequency of each of the engines and actually counter act the noise effect. So, it'll be substantially quieter than a conventional aircraft.

We're targeting general aviation aircrafts, trying to increase mobility by making use of the small community aircrafts for shorter commute times.

The future of commuter travel

Right now at Scaled Composites over at Mojave, we're integrating electrical systems into the aircraft. We expect delivery of the aircraft over to NASA this summer and start the initial flight testing later this year.

We know that companies out there like Uber are already looking to the next generation of mobility with aircraft and we think electric aircrafts are going to fit that niche very nicely. So, we would expect commercialization of this technology in the 5 - 10 year timeframe.  

We've been in conversation with commuter airlines that typically fly shorter flights. And we could see the electric aircraft technology being adapted to that.  It should result in the overall cost of the flight because of the increased efficiency because of the overall increased efficiency of the aircraft. 

Looking ahead to a revolution in long distance flight

It would be the next X plane in the series. And that would be a supersonic transport aircraft. It's a very uniquely shaped aircraft basically to reduce the tune the sonic boom to reduce the effect of it on the ground.

Basically, you're shaping the waveform so when the sound is perceived on the ground, it's actually no perceived as a large, loud boom. We get sonic booms all the time out here at the Edwards Air Force Base and it's very traumatic. It's almost like an explosion so reducing that to the point where it would almost not be noticeable. And that would enable to overflight of the U.S. continental area. 

And that could potentially result in a New York to LA timeframe of about two and a half hours. 

*Quotes edited for clarity*

To hear the full interview with Matt Redifer, click on the blue Media Player above.