In a move to achieve more efficient, quieter and environmentally friendly aircraft compared to a conventional one, the US space agency has unveiled plans for an electric-powered airplane designated as X-57.
With 14 electric motors turning propellers and all of them integrated into a uniquely-designed wing, NASA will test the new propulsion technology using X-57 which has been nicknamed "Maxwell".
"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," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said while addressing at the annual 'Aviation 2016' event in Washington, DC, on Friday.
The name "Maxwell" is given to honour James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th century Scottish physicist who did groundbreaking work in electromagnetism.
As part of a four-year flight demonstrator plan, NASA's "Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Operations Research" project will build the X-57 by modifying a recently procured, Italian-designed "Tecnam P2006T" twin-engine light aircraft.
Its original wing and two gas-fueled piston engines will be replaced with a long, skinny wing embedded with 14 electric motors - 12 on the leading edge for take offs and landings, and one larger motor on each wing tip for use while at cruise altitude.
NASA hopes to validate the idea that distributing electric power across a number of motors integrated with an aircraft in this way will result in a five-time reduction in the energy required for a private plane to cruise at 175 mph.
"Maxwell" will be powered only by batteries, eliminating carbon emissions and demonstrating how demand would shrink for lead-based aviation fuel still in use by general aviation.
Energy efficiency at cruise altitude using X-57 technology could benefit travelers by reducing flight times, fuel usage, as well as reducing overall operational costs for small aircraft by as much as 40 percent.
Typically, to get the best fuel efficiency an airplane has to fly slower than it is able. Electric propulsion essentially eliminates the penalty for cruising at higher speeds.
The X-57 number designation was assigned by the US Air Force, which manages the history-making process, following a request from NASA.
The first X-plane was the X-1 which in 1947 became the first airplane to fly faster than the speed of sound.
"Dozens of X-planes of all shapes, sizes and purposes have since followed - all of them contributing to our stature as the world's leader in aviation and space technology," said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.
"Planes like the X-57, and the others to come, will help us maintain that role," he added.
The X-57's electric propulsion technology is expected to significantly decrease aircraft noise, making it less annoying to the public.