In the same week when the Solar Impulse 2 — an electric airplane powered by the sun — began its quest to circumnavigate the world, NASA announced it has developed a new design that integrates many slow turning electric motors into the wings of light aircraft. The result is that electric airplanes may actually fly someday, although they will only be 1 or 2 passenger planes to begin with.
Integrated propellers provide a 60 percent boost in wing efficiency and a significant reduction in drag. The NASA project envisions 32 electric motors — 16 on each wing — turning small propellers. Each motor can be placed precisely on the wing for maximum efficiency and reduced drag, reports Jalopnik.
The pilot would have many options during flight never before possible. Each motor could be operated independently at different speeds to optimize performance, depending on the phase of flight. In cruise mode, some motors could be shut down and their propellers folded to reduce drag even further. Computers could determine the optimum speed for each motor from takeoff through landing. Having so many motors available would provide critical redundancy and emergency backup in case of failure.
With the government penchant for cool sounding acronyms, NASA is calling the project Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech). NASA has mounted the wing on a specially modified truck at Edwards Air Force Base, where it can operate on a dry lake bed at speeds up to 70 mph. The truck has its own acronym, of course. It is known as the Hybrid-Electric Integrated Systems Testbed (HEIST). Researchers are focusing primarily on the takeoff and landing phases of flight.
After the initial research is complete, NASA plans to mount its experimental wings on an Italian-built Tecnam P2006T. Using an existing airframe will allow engineers to compare the performance of the flight demonstrator with that of the original P2006T. Because the technology is easily scalable, it could then be applied to small passenger planes and eventually be tried on commercial aircraft.
Will we be flying to the Bahamas on vacation aboard electric airplanes any time soon? Probably not. But when you consider that commercial airliners spew enormous amounts of CO2 emission behind them everywhere they go, the NASA research could prove to be enormously important for the environment.