NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released an audit of the agency’s electrified aircraft propulsion (EAP) flight demonstration projects on Wednesday and found that all are likely to experience schedule delays and cost overruns. The reports cast doubt on the technology’s ability to help the aviation industry achieve government-mandated net-zero greenhouse gas emissions targets by 2050.
NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are working on technology to make airplanes more efficient and durable. The duo think they can improve fuel efficiency by up to 30 percent compared to today’s planes, while also reducing noise and emissions. NASA said the goal is to have single-aisle efficient aircraft in the U.S. commercial fleet by the 2030s, and a widebody a decade later.
“Along with investing in renewable aviation fuel and other technological advances, a key component of reducing aviation’s carbon emissions is the advancement of electrified aircraft propulsion (EAP) systems—that is, electric motors that drive some or all of the propulsors on an aircraft, ” reported (PDF) the space administration.
NASA began its EAP efforts in 2009. Since then, it has worked to expand flight envelopes, improve turbine engine performance, work on new concept vertical lift vehicles and fund relevant research and conceptual technology – including flight demonstration projects such as 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 has seven engines and propellers on each wing – a distributed propulsion system that is hoped to be applied to smaller aircraft, including air taxis.
Unfortunately, the cost of the Maxwell project has been overrun by $47 million – a larger figure than the original estimated total cost of $40 million. If that’s not bad enough, it’s almost three years behind schedule. The first flight is planned to take place this year and, although it will probably make this 20-minute tour in the air, it will not reach the final design. The project has been terminated due to – unsurprisingly – funding problems.
The Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) Project is conducting EAP ground and flight tests in an attempt to perfect the technology enough to meet the goal of placing it in the US commercial fleet by the 2030s. It includes a contract with GE Aviation to develop that much-desired single-aisle commercial EAP aircraft, and another contract with electric aircraft manufacturer magniX for a regional hybrid turboprop aircraft. Both have flight demonstrations planned between 2025 and 2026.
However, the audit said EPFD is “showing initial indications of similar schedule delays and cost overruns” to the X-57 Maxwell Project. Project contractors estimated a delay of 247 days for the completion of the project and a cost of $40 million.
NASA’s OIG attributed most of the cost overruns to problems with the COVID supply chain and labor shortages caused by wage pressures — all problems that would obviously have been impossible to predict before the pandemic.
The OIG also found that 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 as well.
The audit found that the project is unlikely to catch up because 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 in which project tests are not possible.
Fortunately, just because a project doesn’t make it—like the X-57 Maxwell Project—doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made in terms of technology development.
Overall, NASA’s auditors recommended better coordination with experts on estimating costs and challenges for EAP projects. They also recommend resources to minimize funding instabilities from their Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) – the org that manages EAP R&D and NASA climate goals efforts.
“While the efforts underway show promise, the ability to meet the FY 2025 to 2028 time frame is largely dependent on the ability of the projects to provide realistic estimates of costs and establishing schedules and ARMD committing funding and physical resources to support those estimates,” OIG wrote, adding that it recognized the challenges associated with predicting timelines. ®