EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, CA, Nov. 8 (Reuters) – NASA, best known for its numerous spaceflight shots, showed an early version of its first fully electric experimental aircraft, the X-57 "Maxwell," on Friday at its lesser-known California desert aviation lab.
Adapted from the Italian twin-propeller Tecnam P2006T with a twin-propeller, the X-57 has been in development since 2015 and remains at least one year out of its first test flight in the sky over Edward Air Force Base.
But after attaching the two largest of the 14 electric motors that will eventually power the aircraft – powered by specially designed lithium-ion batteries – NASA thinks Maxwell is ready for its first public preview.
NASA also showed a newly built simulator that allows engineers and pilots to get a sense of what it would be like to maneuver a ready-made version of an X-57 in flight, even if the aircraft remains under development.
Maxwell is the latest in a proud line of experimental aircraft, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has evolved over many decades for many purposes, including the Bell X-1, which for the first time broke the sound barrier and the X-15 rocket aircraft flown by Neil Armstrong before joining the Apollo moon team.
Maxwell will be the agency's first equipped X-plane developed in two decades.
While private companies have for years developed entirely electric aircraft and hovercraft, NASA X-57 has focused on designing and demonstrating technology in accordance with standards that commercial manufacturers can adapt to government certification.
These will include standards for airworthiness and safety as well as energy efficiency and noise, Brent Cobleigh, project manager of the Armstrong Flight Research Center at Ardastrons in Edwards, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angelis.
"We focus on things that can help the whole industry, not just the e-company," he told Reuters in an interview at the research center. "Our goal right now is to fly this aircraft at the end of 2020. d. "
The latest modification or Mod IV of the aircraft will include narrower lighter-weight wings fitted with a total of 14 electric motors – six smaller lifts" struts at the leading edge of each wing, plus two large cruise props on top of each wing.
The lift propellers will be activated for take-off and landing but will be withdrawn during the cruise phase of the flight.  Because electric propulsion systems are more compact with less moving parts than internal combustion engines, they are simpler to maintain and weigh much less, requiring less energy to fly, Cobleigh explained. They are also quieter than conventional engines.
One of the challenges is to improve battery technology to store more energy to extend the scope of the aircraft with faster recharging.
Due to battery limitations, Maxwell's design is intended for use in short-haul flights such as taxi planes or bus travel for a small number of passengers. (Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Culver, CA; Editing by Sandra Mahler)