NASA has created the X-57 Maxwell, a fully-electric experimental aircraft with 14 motors, all on its wing.
The Maxwell falls under NASA’s X-plane “experimental planes” category and is the first piloted X-plane in 20 years. NASA’s principal investigator Sean Clarke told Business Insider that this two-decade gap is because several X-plane aircraft that NASA has developed over the last 10 to 20 years have been autonomous.
The decision to put a pilot in the Maxwell came because NASA’s test pilots are “high performance and [NASA gets] so much benefit from having them in the seat,” Clarke said. Having pilots on the aircraft simplifies its design because the pilot can spot and diagnose issues while operating the aircraft.
However, NASA didn’t build the X-57 body: an Italian Tecnam P2006T served as the starting point for the Maxwell. NASA then tested and outfitted — through multiple modification series — the P2006T with new batteries, instruments, smaller wings, and electric motors instead of the traditional double-piston engines.
The inspiration for the X-57’s “Maxwell” nickname came from a 19th-century physicist who specialized in electromagnetism: James Clerk Maxwell.