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NASA's electric plane tech is coming in for a late, bumpy landing

Internal audit finds cost overruns and delays that mean more sustainable flight is nowhere near a runway

NASA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on Wednesday released an audit of the agency's electrified aircraft propulsion (EAP) flight demonstration projects and found all will likely experience schedule delays and cost overruns. The reports casts doubt on the technology's ability to help the aviation industry reach government-mandated net-zero greenhouse gas emission targets by 2050.

NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are working on tech to make aircraft more efficient and sustainable. The duo think they can improve fuel efficiency by up to 30 percent compared to today's airplanes, while also reducing noise and emissions. NASA said the goal is to have single aisle efficient aircraft in the US commercial fleet in the 2030s, and a widebody a decade later.

"Along with investing in sustainable aviation fuel and other technological advances, a key component of reducing carbon emissions from aviation is advancing electrified aircraft propulsion (EAP) systems – that is, electric motors that drive some or all the propulsors on an aircraft," reported [PDF] the space administration.

NASA began its EAP efforts in 2009. Since then it's worked to expand flight envelopes, improve turbine engine performance, worked on new concept vertical lift vehicles and funded relevant research and conceptual technology – including flight demonstration projects like the X-57 "Maxwell" Project and the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD).

The X-57 is the agency's experimental first all-electric aircraft. It features seven motors and propellors on each wing – a distributed propulsion system it's hoped can be applied to smaller planes, including air taxis.

Unfortunately, the Maxwell Project's costs have overrun by $47 million – a larger figure than its original estimated total cost of $40 million. If that isn't bad enough, it is running almost three years behind schedule. Its first flight is scheduled to take place this year and, although it's likely to make that 20-minute jaunt in the sky, it won't make it to final design. The project has been terminated thanks to – unsurprisingly – funding issues.

The Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) Project conducts EAP ground and flight tests in an attempt to mature the technology enough meet the goal of placing it in the US commercial fleet by the 2030s. It includes a contract with GE Aviation to develop that badly wanted single-aisle commercial EAP aircraft, and another contract with electric aircraft motor manufacturer, magniX, for a regional commuter hybrid turboprop aircraft. Both have flight demonstrations slated between 2025 and 2026.

However, the audit said EPFD is showing "early indications of similar schedule delays and cost increases" as the X-57 Maxwell Project. Project contractors estimated a 247-day delay to project completion and a $40 million cost overrun.

NASA's OIG attributed the bulk of the cost overruns to COVID supply chain issues and worker shortages caused by wage pressures – all issues that admittedly would have been impossible to predict prior to the pandemic.

The OIG also found NASA was overly optimistic, lacked experience, and had no historical data to use in the agency's EAP efforts. Congressional funding delays and other budget issues complicated matters, too.

The audit found the project is unlikely to catch up, as the planned relocation of the NASA Electric Aircraft Testbed facility at Glenn Research Center will cause a further delay by creating a six-month period during which project tests won't be possible.

Thankfully, just because a project doesn’t make it to completion – like the X-57 Maxwell Project – that doesn't mean no progress is made in terms of technology development.

Overall, NASA's auditors recommended better coordination with experts on estimating costs and challenges on EAP projects. They also recommended resources to minimize funding instabilities from its Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) – the org which manages EAP R&D and NASA climate goal efforts.

"While efforts underway show promise, the ability to meet the FY 2025 to 2028 timeframe is largely contingent upon the projects' ability to establish realistic cost and schedules estimates and ARMD committing funding and physical resources to support those estimates," OIG wrote, adding that it recognized the challenges associated with predicting timelines. ®

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