Last updated: 02:32 PM ET, Fri August 26 2016

Could New NASA Design Bring Us Closer To Battery-Powered Flights?

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | July 15, 2016

Could New NASA Design Bring Us Closer To Battery-Powered Flights?

PHOTO: A new design which raises fuel efficiency (Photo courtesy of NASA)

It sounds like a futuristic dream: a passenger plane powered by electric engines, but fter a successful test by NASA, however, battery-powered flight could be much closer than we think. 

NASA’s X-57, which has been nicknamed Maxwell, would use as little as one-fifth of the energy needed to fly today’s private passenger planes. It would be able to cruise at a speed of 175 miles per hour. 


Battery powered planes

When it reaches cruising altitude, the X-57 will be powered by two battery-powered engines with five-foot long propellers. The major issue with battery-powered designs has been creating enough thrust to get them from the ground to cruising altitude. NASA’s solution is to use 12 smaller battery-powered motors with two-foot-long props to help the plane take off and climb. These motors will run up and down both wings and will fold away once the plane reaches the desired altitude.


Not practical just yet

Maxwell is the first design to come out of NASA’s 10-year New Aviation Horizons project, which is an effort to design planes that produce fewer emissions and operated more efficiently. At least four other planes are being designed as part of the project. The X-57 is certainly one of New Aviation Horizons’ most dramatic designs, but it does have its drawbacks. Thus far, NASA has only been able to create a version of the plane that is large enough for one person. 

Even the X-57’s chief designer, Sean Clarke, admits that this is just the first step of development. “For this tech to make its way to commercial, battery tech needs to improve.” 


The first step: private aviation

London-based transportation designer Paul Priestman pointed out to Dezeen than electric designs like X-57 might not be ready for airlines, but they could eventually be used for personal air transportation. “We've got these electric drones flying around everywhere. [Electric planes are] just a scaled up version really. I think that's going to get really interesting – it could be the beginning of personalized transportation." 

With its smaller motors generating enough force in unison, the X-57 indeed seems to get its inspiration from the kind of remote control drones that have become some popular with hobbyists. 


More cutting edge designs on the way

NASA will produce four more designs as part of the New Aviation Horizons project. These are getting a lot of attention because they will be focusing on something that everyone - governments, environmentalists and airlines - is very interested in: increased efficiency. 

Airlines have shown a willingness to purchase new fuel efficient aircraft like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. They have also been experimenting with various forms of biofuel on commercial flights. Now that oil prices seem to have bottomed out, increasing efficiency is once again on airlines’ minds. 

Read More: How NASA Could Save Airlines Billions in the Future


Good for the environment and for airlines' bottom line

The aviation industry is currently responsible for about two percent of the world’s carbon emissions. However, the commercial flying industry is set to grow dramatically over the next two decades, so that percentage could drastically increase. Authorities and environmental advocates are very worried about this. 

Luckily, it seems that the goals of airlines and clean air campaigners will align. About one third of commercial carriers’ operations budgets go towards fuel, so the more they can limit their reliance on it, the happier they will be. They will embrace cleaner alternatives (they seem to have already done so with biofuels) if it means that they can lower their operating costs. 

Airbus is getting in the game as well. The manufacturer is reportedly working on plans to produce a hybrid airliner in the next 10-15 years. So although X-57s probably wont be taking to the sky anytime soon, the idea of battery-assisted commercial flight could soon be a reality. 


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