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Pismo Beach aerospace company building electric plane for NASA

Empirical Systems Aerospace team members include, from left, Andy Gibson, Tony Cash, Colin Wilson, Trevor Foster and Phil Osterkamp. They’re overseeing the design and assembly of the X-57 aircraft, an innovative electric plane.
Empirical Systems Aerospace team members include, from left, Andy Gibson, Tony Cash, Colin Wilson, Trevor Foster and Phil Osterkamp. They’re overseeing the design and assembly of the X-57 aircraft, an innovative electric plane.

A Pismo Beach aerospace company, Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero), is playing the key operational role in building an innovative electric-powered plane that its developers say could usher in a new era of quieter, more efficient and environmentally friendly aircraft.

NASA has contracted with ESAero to build the prototype plane, called X-57, and design it to take off faster and use fewer motors compared with fuel-powered aircrafts, without producing carbon emissions.

“We are looking to open the eyes of the industry and demonstrate that, using the unique design and integration techniques that electrics allow, it is possible to build a new generation of aircraft,” said Trevor Foster, ESAero’s vice president of operations .

We are looking to open the eyes of the industry and demonstrate that, using the unique design and integration techniques that electrics allow, it is possible to build a new generation of aircraft.

Trevor Foster, ESAero vice president of operations

Last month, the company flew parts of the plane to its main facility at Oceano County Airport, including the fuselage (main body section), wing, and elevator (flight mechanisms that control the plane’s pitch and wing lift).

ESAero is the prime contractor with NASA, building specific components of the aircraft and coordinating the completion of the rest. The company has completed its initial inspection and measurements of some parts, which now will be moved south to a subcontractor for integration of electric power systems.

175Expected top speed in miles per hour of the prototype electric plane

Other companies involved with the project include Xperimental of San Luis Obispo, Joby Aviation of Santa Cruz, and Electronic Power Systems in Industry, California. ESAero has the lead role in overseeing the project.

“We are responsible for the day-to-day oversight of all of the vendors and subcontractors, and ensuring smooth communicating and relaying of information between all parties involved,” Foster said.

The prototype won’t target potential models for commercial, military or space aircraft, but rather show that an electric model is viable.

The prototype will be all electric, but Foster said he believes for electric to be successful on the market, “a hybrid solution is the most likely candidate.”

Over several decades, NASA’s experimental X-plane models have led to a variety of innovations in the flight industry. Those have included the first plane to break the sound barrier, built in 1946, and the first manned, hypersonic aircraft capable of suborbital spaceflight, assembled in 1959.

Modifications of the X-57’s electrical systems will take about a year to complete in Mojave before flight testing will begin at Edwards Air Force Base near Lancaster.

The plane is being referred to as “Maxwell,” named in honor of 19th-century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who did groundbreaking work in electromagnetism.

The Maxwell is being built to resemble an Italian airplane, the Tecnam P2006T, a fuel-powered plane that’s the lightest twin-engine certified aircraft available.

The cruise speed of the stock P2006Ts is about 150 mph with a maximum speed of about 175 mph.

“Our goal is to demonstrate similar performance,” Foster said.

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