NASA’s Electrified Aircraft Propulsion Projects Face Delays and Cost Overruns, Raising Concerns for Achieving Emission Targets
Posted on : 26 July, 2023 11:06 am
NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has conducted an audit on the agency’s electrified aircraft propulsion (EAP) flight demonstration projects and has found that all projects are likely to experience schedule delays and cost overruns. This report raises concerns about the feasibility of using this technology to help the aviation industry achieve the government’s net-zero greenhouse gas emission targets by 2050.
Exploring Efficient and Sustainable Aviation
In collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NASA has been actively working on developing technologies to enhance aircraft efficiency and sustainability. The aim is to improve fuel efficiency by up to 30% compared to current airplanes, while simultaneously reducing noise and emissions. NASA’s goal is to introduce single aisle efficient aircraft into the US commercial fleet by the 2030s, followed by widebody aircraft a decade later.
According to a report by the space administration, one crucial aspect of reducing carbon emissions from aviation is advancing electrified aircraft propulsion (EAP) systems. These systems involve electric motors that power some or all of the propulsors on an aircraft.
NASA’s Electrified Aircraft Propulsion Efforts and Flight Demonstration Projects
NASA initiated its EAP endeavors in 2009 and has since focused on expanding flight envelopes, enhancing turbine engine performance, exploring new concept vertical lift vehicles, and funding relevant research and technology development. Notable among these efforts are the X-57 “Maxwell” Project and the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD).
The X-57 project is NASA’s experimental all-electric aircraft featuring distributed propulsion with seven motors and propellers on each wing. This distributed propulsion system is intended to be applicable to smaller aircraft, including air taxis. However, the project has faced setbacks, with costs surpassing the original estimate of $40 million by $47 million. Additionally, it is running nearly three years behind schedule, ultimately leading to its termination due to funding issues.
The EPFD project aims to conduct ground and flight tests for EAP technology, with the goal of incorporating it into the US commercial fleet by the 2030s. The project includes contracts with GE Aviation for the development of a single-aisle commercial EAP aircraft and with magniX, an electric aircraft motor manufacturer, for a regional commuter hybrid turboprop aircraft. Flight demonstrations for both projects are scheduled between 2025 and 2026.
However, the audit revealed that the EPFD project is experiencing early indications of schedule delays and cost increases similar to the X-57 Maxwell Project. Contractors estimated a 247-day delay in project completion and a $40 million cost overrun.
Challenges and Recommendations
The OIG audit identified several challenges faced by NASA’s EAP projects, including COVID-related supply chain issues, worker shortages caused by wage pressures, and funding delays due to congressional decisions. The lack of historical data and experience in EAP efforts also contributed to the difficulties encountered.
In light of these findings, the auditors recommended improved coordination with experts to estimate costs and anticipate challenges in EAP projects. They also suggested allocating sufficient resources from the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD), the organization responsible for managing EAP R&D and NASA’s climate goals, to minimize funding instabilities.
While some projects, like the X-57 Maxwell Project, may not reach completion, it is important to acknowledge that progress is made in terms of technology development.
NASA’s audit report highlights the challenges faced by the agency’s electrified aircraft propulsion projects, including schedule delays, cost overruns, and funding instabilities. The report underscores the need for better coordination, realistic cost and schedule estimates, and adequate resource allocation to support these projects. Despite the setbacks, NASA remains committed to advancing sustainable aviation and reducing carbon emissions, and it will continue to collaborate with experts and stakeholders to overcome the challenges associated with electrified aircraft propulsion.