NASA’s Maxwell Electric Debuts: First Flight In 2020


NASA formally unveiled its electric airplane test bed last week and the Maxwell (more formally the X-57) will be the agency’s first manned aircraft project in 20 years. The aircraft, which is based on a Tecnam 2006 light twin, is still at least a year from its first flight but the two largest of its eventual 14-motor configuration are being mounted and that resulted in the public showing at Edwards Air Force Base. It also showed off a full-motion simulator that engineers will use to practice on.

The big motors will power it during cruise while the 12 smaller ones, arrayed along the leading edge of the high wing, will help get the plane airborne. They will then fold up when the bigger motors take over. NASA has a slightly different focus than the plethora of electric aviation startups that are now crowding the fledgling market. It’s testing technologies that will meet rigid standards for commercial certification but it’s also responding to the clear push toward electric aviation. “We’re focusing on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company,” Brent Cobleigh, a project manager for NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards told Reuters. “Our target right now is to fly this airplane in late 2020.”


  1. Every time may alternator fails or my PC crashes or my phone needs replacing every 3 years, I am thankful that I fly behind a Lycoming for the last 45 years. Heck, with magnetos, I can fly through an EMP apocalypse.

  2. I love following the progress on this project. Had this project started 20 years ago there’s no telling where aviation would be today. I know there will be nay-sayers, but those were the same people who said that the horseless carriage would never replace horse and buggies 120 years ago. Had we listened to those folk in the 1960s we would never had landed a man on the moon. One day we will have the battery technology to keep an electric aircraft in the air for 20 hours. It’s great to see that the R&D on electric aircraft is starting to really take off.

    Just imagine if our GA aircraft were electric. No more dealing with expensive smelly leaded avgas, no more oil changes, no more spark plug maintenance, no concerns about keeping CHT in check, being able to hit the flight levels without turbos, the end of the ROP/LOP debate, etc. (the list goes on and on). Not to mention how much quieter it would be in the cockpit.

    • Let’s see…

      No loss of weight as the flight endures.
      Reductions of power and endurance (read: “climb and range”) as the batteries age.
      Short circuits.
      Battery leaks and fires.
      Susceptibility to lightning damage.
      Added weight to mitigate risk of lightning damage.
      Electric-powered compressors for pressurization and cabin heat.

      It’s a regular aeronautical Nirvana. 😉

      • Good point. We never had to worry about leaks or fires with liquid fuel. And since technology never advances, ever, battery technology will never improve. I see what you mean. The battery in my neighbors 12 year old Prius only has 98% of its original capacity. I guess there’s no point in investing in R&D when it’s far easier to be pessimistic and stagnate.

        • All YARS points were logical (and have yet to be addressed).

          A Prius running at continuous power settings down a highway does not use the electric/batteries at all; continuous high power for long driving is handed off to the gas engine. The hybrid system in a scenario is therefore more expensive and a less efficient than a lighter car with an equal displacement gas engine.

          It’s not pessimism, it’s basic physics and reality.

          • The reality is that battery technology continues to improve and recent research has led to successful experiments with Lithium Carbon Dioxide technology that promises energy density up to 7x what Li-Ion is currently providing while overcoming the limitations of degradation over cycles. While nay sayers like you guys continue to poop on electric aviation research, people much smarter than you or I are breaking barriers and proving you wrong.

            We were once a country of people who set out to do great things and create bleeding edge technology. The comments I see on this site regarding electric aviation make me worry that we have become a country of people who just want to stand in the way of innovation. If that’s true than our best days are behind us.

            What NASA is doing with the X57 is changing the calculus. Electric technology is enabling us to redesign a wing that is 500% more efficient in cruise. All the old math about power consumption changes. Rather than face this with pessimism, why not marvel at the progress? 120 years ago the first horseless carriage has to constantly be fed coal and be replenished with water. It was highly inefficient. But we would not have modern day automobiles without that first step. The X57 represents one of the first steps towards the future of aviation.

  3. NASA and Tecnam as partners for the revolutionary quest of electrical powered airplanes. Who wudda thunk it?

    Install a wing full of electric motors on a production airplane…now there is something new. I think the fella who installed a couple of RC electric motors, ESC, and li-po batteries on his Cri-Cri oughtta cry “foul” since he had already pioneered the multi-motor concept.

    I wonder if the FAA is going to require a multi-motor rating for this airplane. Seems like multi-engine does not meet the scientific nomenclature criteria, therefor demanding another rating with appropriate acronym. Hmmm…MMCFII should do it.

  4. Daniel:
    Considerations of “poop” notwithstanding, there’s a fundamental difference between optimism and faith.
    Reliance upon future availability of unobtanium is an act of faith.
    With 45 years of success on the bleeding edge, I rely upon agnostic realism.

  5. Daniel,
    I can marvel at NASA going to the moon all I want; but COST is the reason that Apollo 18 never left the dirt. 500% more efficient in cruise is only good as long as it costs less to actually design, build, certify, and be competitive in the real world aviation market. Technology has advanced dramatically since 1969, but the public is still not flying to the moon.

    Honestly, GA manufacturing could be better served by mundane things like tort reform and easier to obtain STC’s.

  6. Daniel…Many here have been in aviation a long time, in engineering, certification, and flying those airplanes as a result. Several in space, commercial, and GA aviation. No one is against technology and the advancement of it. This combined experience has shown that airplanes are one of the most difficult ways to use as a technology incubator. With so few being built commercially, especially GA. Even commercial airliner production is low compared to automobiles, consumer electronics, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, etc. …the cost of even doing the most simplest improvement cannot be amortized even close to the word economically.

    Only an airplane built in the experimental category can even use what has been developed and proven to be leading edge technology in an airplane but has been used by the average consumer for over 25 years. Try to find a mechanic who can rebuild a carburetor. Try to find an average consumer who could even start a car with a carburetor. Try to find a new car with a carburetor.

    EFI, with an ECU to control fuel delivery, timing, throttle application, detonation control, and transmission shifts are on the most basic econo-box, entry level poopusmachine. 300-500HP 4/6 cylinder turbocharged/supercharged cars/trucks that get 25-35 miles per gallon are readily available…with a 10 year/100,000 mile warranty. 700-1,000 HP vehicles with all the comfort amenities can be purchased that will run 9 second quarter mile times, capable of 1-2G turns, 200+ top speeds, meet all current emission standards…and get 20-25 miles per gallon on ethanol pump gas…for $65-80,000…with a warranty, traffic,weather, stereo surround sound, and GPS. One of the fastest and efficient production cars is a Tesla. However, even Tesla, with all of its technology successes, performance, and consumer satisfaction is not making any money. And Tesla production has far surpassed the 70+ years of Bonanza production totals.

    So, these comments you are challenging does not come from uninformed people who are nay-saying pessimists. Instead, they are realists, have seen many aviation promises made, very few kept, costing astronomical amounts of money, to be another ” I wonder what happen to ________ ( name the airplane of choice like Windekker Eagle, One Aviation Kestrel/Eclipse, Terraflugia, Starship, Lear Fan, Interceptor 400)..and you will get a better understanding of why the skepticism.

    No one is anti-technology. But until there is massive certification changes combined with torte reform, aviation cannot be the test bed for new technology. None of the reform needed is on the horizon. We acknowledge that hindrance for what it is, still yet hoping for a better outcome. And with the MCAS debacle, aviation may end up going backwards before going forward again.

    My all electric airplane with electric flaps, landing gear, and prop is 66 years old. However, it is powered by a carburated, 7:1 compression, 80 octane burning engine. This should be a natural for a 250-300hp electric motor installation. I don’t need a 500% more efficient wing, I need either unleaded avgas, the availability and use what is already in the common car, with certification standards that would promote/permit the installation of a commonly available 250-300HP motor and the development of batteries that will allow me more than one hour of flying time, and not burn my magnesium containing airplane. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the charging stations needed at the 17,000 airports I presently can fly to in my unleaded, auto-fuel burning, carburated, wobble pump equipped, all electric( except for engine), flying fossil, which is worth what a used 5 year old Prius is.

  7. It had nothing to do with cost. We stopped going to the moon because the public lost interest. I think we have proven time and time again that when we really want to accomplish something, cost doesn’t matter. We find a way. The main problem is that our priorities have been wrong. It seems that we can easily find $3 Trillion to fund an unnecessary war, but a few 10s of millions on technological progress is some how unaffordable. We would not have the internet today had it not been for the massive investment the DOD made into ARPANet which was a project with an overall negative ROI.

    Like it or not, electric aviation is in the future, just like electric cars are the future. There is a healthy mix of public and private R&D working towards viable technologies to make electric propulsion a reality. I just don’t see why anyone could be against this. Imagine 10 years from now a Lithium-CO2 battery pack that can keep a Cirrus SR-22 in the air for 7 hours while quietly propelling it at 200kts at 24,000 feet (yes, I know, you need O2 at that altitude, so what, that’s not the point), all for an hourly cost 1/10 of what it is now. And at the same time, no more worries about the multitude of maintenance issues we have with internal combustion engines. It would be better, safer, and cheaper. Can you imagine flying your airplane for a day, then pulling the battery packs out of the wings to take them home to charge over night for a couple of dollars worth of power instead of paying $300 to fill the tanks? Why wouldn’t you want that?

    OK, I’ve said enough. I’ll get of your lawn now.

    • “Like it or not, electric aviation is in the future…”

      You’ve made a freshman error: conflating a means with an end.

      “Build a practical electric airplane” is NOT a valid objective. “Build a more-efficient, more-environmentally-benign airplane” IS a valid objective. That wonder-plane may – or may not – be powered by electricity. But its source of propulsion is immaterial to the objective; it’s a means to an end. As soon as you conflate means and ends, the engineering shark has been jumped. You’ll never see the forest, for the trees. You’re screwed.

      Harsh truth has a nickname: reality.

  8. We stopped going to the moon because of cost. If you remember, the US was at the height of the Vietnam War, which was costing a bundle, we were fighting the Cold War which cost a bundle, we were in a recession/inflationary time…which cost a bundle. All of technology is a weave of cost, benefit, and ROI. Pioneers could not nor did not become immune to cost.

    The only way to get cost down is have something developed that becomes affordable through large amounts of production. No one has ever developed and produced anything without cost. No one invests in some idea before determining a return on their investment no matter how noble or not the project is.

    Now the argument simply becomes of priorities to fund development…which involves cost…of unleaded aviation fuel, or 3 trillion dollars for war, or tens of millions for battery development, or billions on autonomous flying/driving vehicles, Uber copters, synthetic self-cleaning underwear, artificial intelligence, or whatever the political soup de jour of the day is. All of these priorities include costs, therefor ROI, and here we go again thinking we can do it all whenever we want. If we cannot get our pet project funded, we cry foul, because what we want we want now.

    The only way to get it now is pay for it now. Besides, we have not spent trillions on anything. We have spent our future income, by borrowing today for what we deem important yesterday. I believe the term is deficit spending…another cost.

    NASA and Tecnam require money for them to exist…which involves cost. Tecnam gets it’s money from the sales and production of the goods and services they provide. NASA gets it funded by you and me, the taxpayer.

    I would like to have an electric powered airplane. But the reality of getting it to fruition is still there…which involves cost, which involves regulation, which involves investment by somebody before any of this gets off the ground ( no pun intended).

    Realistically, I would be happy with unleaded avgas, competitively priced with auto-fuel, available around the country so I don’t have to tanker unleaded, non-ethanol auto fuel to my airplane. That little innovation would improve the aircraft ownership experience for about 80% of the fleet. Until then, I will be watching for battery technology either to develop or go by the wayside depending on who will be funding it in addition to my contribution to NASA.

    I am hoping someone outside of government gets a really good return on their investment because if we depend on NASA, my contribution will only be going up with me having not much say so about it. Priorities, priorities, priorities.

  9. Daniel, don’t forget that the goal here for GA is getting more pilots and more airports and more airplanes and making things easier for owners/pilots. Electric propulsion is just one facet; not “the goal” of GA and it’s certainly not the goal of current aircraft owners.

    Me personal dream of the future?
    I want either a de Havilland DH.88 Comet replica or a light jet.

  10. This article completely missed the core significance of this aircraft. NASA is not simply converting a piston airplane to electric. They are developing an entirely new wing which uses a dozen motors to generate blown lift. With a maximum lift coefficient of 4.2, NASA will be able to drastically reduce the wing area and corresponding drag.

    The stock Tecnam has a wing loading of 17 pounds per square foot. With this new wing, it will operate at 45 pound per square foot and have the same stall speed. That’s pretty cool!

      • You can’t think of it that way, there is likely no real “single engine” operating mode. With 12 total motors that can provide thrust on demand, the failure of a main wingtip motor could be compensated for by using some or all of the lift motors along the wing. In this sense it would be far safer than the original twin platform.

        Of course on top of that there is the beauty of the much higher reliability of electric motors over internal combustion engines. The absence of ignition, fuel, and exhaust systems means fewer failure modes. The installation of electric quite literally only requires power cables (and some signal wires). No worries of fuels leaks or oil leaks or bad mags or bad spark plugs, or leaking exhaust, etc.

        I imagine that the design would also include technology to detect a motor failure that would automatically start lift motors and set power individually to overcome asymmetric thrust.

        We can’t think in the same terms when it comes to electric aircraft. As I mentioned earlier, this is changing all the old math.

        • You cannot think of ELECTRICAL failures of wires, controllers, motors, software, batteries, connectors, lightning strikes, thermal shutdowns, etc, based on WHAT DATA? Propeller loss from fatigue or bird strike?

          With a super high wing loading AND main propulsion at the wingtips, OF COURSE it’s much more dangerous than a conventional plane if systems go south. Lose the power and it drops like an F104 at gross weight.

  11. I feel like I’ve read some of these comments before…oh yeah there it is:

    “Scientific investigation into the possibilities [of jet propulsion] has given no indication that this method can be a serious competitor to the airscrew-engine combination.”
    -The British Under-Secretary of State for Air, 1934

    • !934? For the last 150 years the comments from sellers of electric vehicles has been: “As soon as battery technology improves…” Day-to-day aviation has driven by fuels, not electrons. There is a niche for electric airplanes in GA just as there is a niche for hot air balloons, gyro-copters, Ultralights, and other short range personal craft.

      The more I look at the Maxwell, the more dangerous it looks if there is a partial power outage or especially if there is a total outage. Things can go wrong really fast in that design and I hope no one gets hurt.

      • I think you’re missing the point…

        In 1934, there were knowledgeable people that, based on the technology they saw in front of them, came to the conclusion that jet propulsion will never be practical/efficient/safe/etc. Quite obviously they were very much on the wrong side of history, and jet propulsion completely revolutionized aviation.

        You’re looking at the technology you see in front of you and are concluding that electric propulsion will never be practical/efficient/safe/etc exactly the same way that the Under-Secretary of State for Air did with jet propulsion in 1934. So you’re dismissing it.

        The technology definitely has potential from an engineering standpoint, and that’s proven by the number of organizations (public and private sector) that are researching and experimenting with it. Corporations don’t throw research money at a concept unless they think it’s going to produce something useful.

        Are there potential safety issues in the design of this aircraft? Yeah there are. There are on literally every aircraft design ever conceived. Risks are managed. Testing is done. Backups are put in place. Maintenance and inspection requirements are set. Procedures are developed. And in the end, before a product makes it to market, there’s an assessment that it is “safe enough” in the form of certification. These days, they almost always get it right, and where they don’t get it right, they incrementally improve what’s there.

        I think you would be well served to spend some time marveling at the LyConTax under your cowling and how many moving parts manufactured and assembled by an imperfect human being thrash around with varying tolerances under high cyclical stresses with vast thermal gradients for thousands of hours on end to produce a very precarious chemical balance controlled by thousands of lines of code (if you have a FADEC) or barely controlled at all (if you don’t) to result in thousands of explosions per minute in order to convert dead dinosaurs into predictable amounts of thrust. The complexity is immense. There are a huge number of opportunities for things to go instantly wrong there, and thousands upon thousands of people have died when they have gone wrong. But since you’ve been accepting all those risks for years without thinking about it and you don’t have much of a choice because there is currently no alternative, so those risks become invisible to you, or “just the way it is”. When something new comes up and you do try to assess the risks, it automatically looks riskier because it’s not as familiar as the 4000+ explosions per minute you’re used to.

        I have no doubt that NASA and Scaled Composites have evaluated and approached the risks of this system carefully and incrementally, and will continue to do so as flight testers have done for decades. I guarantee they’ve thought of partial or complete power failures. Your inability to comprehend and compare the risks associated with flying this aircraft is not an indication of NASA’s.

        • In 1934, after just 2 years of development, knowledgeable people came to the conclusion that jet propulsion will never be useful/practical in warplanes in the coming war. They were 100% CORRECT.

          In 2019, after 85 years of further military propulsion development, knowledgeable people don’t conclude that electric power will be useful/practice for the next generation fighter. ….and the Maxwell is still using good-old motor/air-screw/combinations to fly. 🙂