NASA has taken delivery of its first completely electric aircraft, the experimental X-57 electric plane, in what the agency has called a “major milestone” for the project.

The X-57 is the latest in a series of experimental aircraft developed by NASA, known as X-planes, but is the first to be powered entirely by electricity. This is achieved by replacing the traditional combustion engines with electric cruise motors.

NASA is developing three different configurations of the electric plane, with the first – the X-57 Mod II – having been delivered to the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, on Wednesday.

The X-57 Mod II will now undergo ground testing, followed by taxi testing and ultimately flight tests.

It was delivered by Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero), which is also working on the Mod III and Mod IV configurations.

“In this revolutionary time, the experience and lessons learned, from early requirements to current standards development, has the X-57 paving the way,” said ESAero president and CEO Andrew Gibson.

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“This milestone, along with receiving the successfully load-tested MOD III wing back, will enable NASA, ESAero and the small business team to accelerate and lead electric air vehicle distributed propulsion development on the MOD III and MOD IV configurations with integration at our facilities in San Luis Obispo.”

NASA electric plane to help define electric aircraft industry

A key goal of the project is to help develop the regulatory framework for electric aircraft, which the agency describes as an emerging market.

This will include certification standards, and will cover what are known as urban air mobility vehicles – the real-world realisation of so-called flying cars.

“The X-57 Mod II aircraft delivery to NASA is a significant event, marking the beginning of a new phase in this exciting electric X-plane project,” said X-57 Project Manager Tom Rigney.

“With the aircraft in our possession, the X-57 team will soon conduct extensive ground testing of the integrated electric propulsion system to ensure the aircraft is airworthy.

“We plan to rapidly share valuable lessons learned along the way as we progress toward flight testing, helping to inform the growing electric aircraft market.”