NASA says electric aircraft technology isn’t ready for prime time and its much-hyped X-57 Maxwell test aircraft will never fly. The $87 million program (including $47 million in cost overruns) will wind up at the end of this year, and the knowledge gained by trying to get the plane into the air will be available for anyone who can apply it to their project.
The plan was to modify a Tecnam P2006 with an array of small electric motors on the leading edge of a high-lift wing for vertical takeoff and shift the power to two larger wingtip motors and props for cruise flight. NASA officials said in a streamed news conference on Friday they can’t do it safely in the time available. The announcement comes on the heels of Tecnam’s announcement that it was suspending its own electrification project, the P-Volt, because battery technology isn’t advanced enough for economically viable aircraft.
In the conference, Bradley Flick, director of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, said NASA based the program on assumptions that existing electric propulsion technology was advanced enough to be incorporated into the Maxwell. He said the researchers discovered those assumptions were incorrect. “What we learned is that many of those necessary subsystems were not sufficiently mature for safe flight,” he said.
In 2021 the team decided to fund the research through the end of 2023, and they thought they’d get the plane into the air. Flick said that earlier this year researchers discovered a problem with the technology that would make flying the plane unsafe and there wouldn’t be enough time to fix it before the scheduled end of the program.