The X-57 Maxwell is the latest experimental aircraft from the engineers at NASA. The propeller-driven vehicle, sporting 14 engines, is powered by sunlight. As part of the design, the airplane utilizes a specially-designed wing. This aircraft is the first experimental aerial vehicle designed by NASA in a decade.
However, the new aircraft is a modification of another airplane, a copy of the twin-engine Tecnam P2006T. The wings and engines of the stock aircraft are removed, and replaced with a network of 14 electric power plants, attached to a longer, skinnier wing than that found on the standard model. "With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA's research capabilities — which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative — the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation," Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, said.
The X-57 designation, assigned by the United States Air Force, was announced on June 17, 2016, together with the name Maxwell. The first aircraft in this series was the X-1, which carried Chuck Yeager past the sound barrier for the first time in 1947. James Clerk Maxwell, a groundbreaking physicist who worked in the 19th century, was honored with his name being assigned to the new aircraft.
The New Aviation Horizons initiative directs NASA to produce as many as six new aircraft designs featuring high fuel economy with reduced emissions and noise pollution. These features were selected in an effort to increase desirability of the models in the marketplace. During takeoffs and landings, 12 engines on the leading edge of the wings power the maneuvers. While at cruising altitude, a pair of engines on the tips of the wings take over, driving the aircraft at velocities up to 175 mph. The electric engines of the craft, like those in automobiles, are significantly quieter than conventional power plants. This will greatly reduce the amount of noise the vehicle will make taking off and landing in populated areas.
Flights aboard the Maxwell will be powered solely through power delivered by sunlight and batteries. This experiment is designed to show how the use of aviation fuel could be greatly curtailed, if not completely eliminated. Engineers believe the technology developed during the creation of Maxwell could reduce operational costs by up to 40 percent for small aircraft. Using conventional propulsion systems, fuel efficiency is reduced at higher speeds. However, this is not the case for aircraft utilizing solar-driven electric propulsion systems.