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NASA Using Distributed Propulsion for Electric Airplane

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A rendering of the LEAPTech aircraftAn announcement made by NASA changes our perspective of Airplane wings and propulsion system. NASA announced its distributed propulsion design on which it was working since last year.

The project, named Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech) was taken up by NASA in cooperation with Joby Aviation and Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero).

To build electric planes, NASA designed a 9.4m carbon composite wing equipped with 18 electric motors to drive their respective slow speed propellers. These propellers, powered by lithium ion phosphate batteries, increase the velocity of the air around the wing. As the name states, Leading Edge Asynchronous Propellers Technology is asynchronous because each LEAP motor can be operated at a different speed.

For optimum performance, the pilot would have the complete control over all the motors to regulate their speeds based on the phase of the flight. The pilot decides the speed of each motor with the help of computers as they calculate at each point of the journey. The researchers hope to show that the noise from all those propellers can be rendered less annoying for people on the ground by running them at slightly different revolutions per minute.

the new wings mounted on the customized  tuck HEISTAs the responsibility of lifting the plane is shared between the 18 propellers, they provide an upward thrust, which decreases the drag.  LEAPTech is supposed to show significant improvement in ride quality and reduce the drag by 60%, thus increasing its efficiency.

Its specifications include 200mph cruise speed, 4 member seating capacity, fully electric range of 200 nautical miles (740 km) and a cruise altitude of 12000 ft. The pilot could even operate to shut down some of the motors and fold their propellers to further reduce the drag in cruise mode. At Edwards Air Force Base, to perform the experiment, the wings were mounted on a custom truck named Hybrid-Electric Integrated Systems Testbed (HEIST), where they can be tested on a dry lake bed at speeds up to 70 mph.

Within the next three years NASA wants to be flying a piloted X-plane. So, If the initial research gets completed, NASA is planning to place the new wings on an Italian-built Tecnam P2006T to compare the flight demonstrator performance with that of an unmodified P2006T.

Unlike commercial airlines, these electric planes could reduce the noise and be both economy and environment friendly as they don’t use chemical fuels and emit CO2 . In the beginning, they might carry only one or two passengers but, as man is diving deep into science, technology gets better and we can hope for fully electric air vehicles soon. If not for a fully electric commercial aircraft in near future, may be we could all have electric powered personal air vehicles soon.

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