NASA is quietly working on an ambitious plan to help a “significant portion” of the aircraft industry transition to electric propulsion within the next decade. It’s a noble—and challenging—endeavor that has the potential to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Now, the Agency has begun testing an electric plane concept that uses Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech). It could transform aviation, but on the face of it, it’s really rather peculiar.
Designed in partnership with Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero) and Joby Aviation, the LEAPTech wing has 18 independently-operated electric motors which are powered by lithium phosphate batteries. The batteries are fixed to a wing area that is one-third of the size of conventional aircraft wings. If the current tests prove successful, then NASA plans to modify a four-seater, two-engine Tecnam P2006T (as shown in the rendering) to use the electric LEAPTech wing within the next two years.
According to Joby Aviation, the LEAPTech wing can create “significant improvements in efficiency (60 percent less drag), ride quality, [and] gust sensitivity by more than doubling the wing loading, all while maintaining the same stall and field length performance of conventional gas-powered aircraft.” Each motor can be operated independently for optimized performance, and by using multiple motors with slow-speed propellers, the electric plane is significantly quieter than a conventional craft.
For now, NASA is firmly at the testing stage. A 31-foot carbon composite LEAPTech wing has been mounted atop a truck (where it can remain attached to load cells) and—rather than being placed in a wind tunnel—is being driven across a dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. No word yet on what the range of this craft could be, or how it might glide in the event of complete electrical failure, but if the tests at Edwards go well, some incredibly ballsy pilots are sure to find out.
Images via NASA