NASA last month unveiled
plans to develop X-57,
dubbed “Maxwell,” an entirely
electric-powered aviation-
sized plane capable of
reaching speeds of 175 mph,
and its first X-plane — piloted
experimental plane — in 10
years.
The space agency’s goal is to
do for electric planes what
Tesla Motors’
(NASDAQ:TSLA ) co-founder
and CEO Elon Musk has done
for electric vehicles: help
them take off.
Here’s what investors —
including those in Boeing
(NYSE:BA ), Airbus
(NASDAQOTH:EADSY ), and
Siemens
(NASDAQOTH:SIEGY ) —
should know.
ARTIST’S RENDERIG OF
MAXWELL, WHICH WILL BE
EXCLUSIVELY POWERED BY
14 ELECTRIC MOTORS.
IMAGE SOURCE: NASA.
NASA’s “Maxwell” and
beyond
Maxwell will be a single-
seater, but up to five larger
transport-scale X-planes also
are planned as part of
NASA’s $790 million New
Aviation Horizons initiative.
This is a 10-year program
that aims to demonstrate the
benefits of using alternative
power sources for aircraft,
with the goal of speeding up
adoption of such technology
by the commercial sector.
Today’s jetliners are
deafening loud, fuel-guzzling,
and air polluting. NASA aims
to show how electric planes
can lessen noise pollution,
save fuel costs, and help
green-up the air.
NASA will build Maxwell by
modifying an Italian-designed
Tecnam P2006T twin-engine
light aircraft. The wing and
two gas engines will be
replaced with a long, thin
wing embedded with 14
electric motors – 12 on the
leading edge for take offs and
landings, and one larger one
on each wing tip for use while
at cruise altitude. The agency
hopes to show that
distributing electric power in
this way will result in a five-
fold reduction in the energy
required for such a plane to
cruise at 175 mph.
Maxwell could be flying within
four years, according to
NASA.
Borrowing a page from
Tesla’s playbook and
nodding to Elon Musk’s
vision
Musk named his EV company
after Nikola Tesla, whose
contributions led to the design
of the modern alternating
current (AC) electricity supply
system. NASA likewise named
its electric plane after another
individual worthy of name
recognition who has largely
been forgotten by history —
James Clerk Maxwell, a 19th
century Scottish physicist
who did groundbreaking work
in electromagnetism.
NASA’s electric plane
initiative nods to Musk’s
vision of using electrically
powered vehicles to help
clean up the world’s air. Like
Musk, NASA is putting huge
resources into accomplishing
this goal.
Commercial players exploring
the electric skies
A BOEING-UNIVERSITY OF
CAMBRIDGE EXPERIMENTAL
AIRPLANE POWERED BY A
HYBRID-ELECTRIC
PROPULSION SYSTEM — THE
FIRST EVER TO BE ABLE TO
RECHARGE ITS BATTERIES IN
FLIGHT — COMPLETED
FLIGHT TESTS IN THE U.K.
IN LATE 2014.
NASA’s initiative should go a
long way in accelerating the
commercial adoption of
electric planes, or “EPs.” The
U.S. government could
possibly roll out alternative
fuel incentives for plane
manufacturers just as it has
for automakers if the agency
successfully demonstrates the
benefits of using such fuels to
power aircraft.
The leading aerospace
companies have already
taken off on their own
explorations of using
alternative fuels to power
aircraft, though their major
projects are within the hybrid-
electric — rather than pure
electric — realm. Examples:
Boeing has been exploring
several hybrid-electric
propulsion systems for
aircraft, including using
conventional jet engines
for takeoff but switching to
electric power during
flight. Boeing has worked
with NASA and General
Electric, along with
several
research universities, in its
efforts.
Airbus — Boeing’s chief
rival — and
Siemens announced in
April that they’re
collaborating exclusively in
selected development
areas related to aircraft
hybrid-electric propulsion.
The European duo said
they’ll put a team of 200
engineers on the project,
with the goal of
demonstrating the
technical feasibility of
hybrid-electric propulsion
systems by 2020. Siemens
plans to establish hybrid-
electric propulsion
systems for aircraft as a
future business.
From take-off to takeaway…
The investor takeaway from
NASA’s electric plane
initiative is straightforward:
The commercial jetliner
industry could be disrupted in
a similar manner as the
traditional auto industry is
now being disrupted by EVs.
And investment landscapes
get rearranged when
mammoth disruptions occur.
The future winner(s) in the
serially produced commercial
electric plane space could
emerge from the crop of
current major aerospace
players, such as Boeing,
Airbus, and General Electric.
However, with billionaires
such as Musk — he’s said
several times that he has an
idea for a vertical take-off
electric plane — and Alphabet
CEO and co-founder Larry
Page interested in the aircraft
realm, we might see new
entrants fly into the game.
Companies that generate a
fair portion of their revenue
from the traditional jetliner
industry and don’t nimbly
retool to adapt to a changing
marketplace could crash and
burn — or at least lose
financial altitude.
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