While NASA made significant progress on its research and development efforts for electrified aircraft propulsion systems and technology—which aim to reduce carbon emissions by replacing all or some of an aircraft’s motors with electric alternatives—it faces challenges that could affect monetary and timeline goals, according to a Wednesday report from the agency’s Inspector General.
The agency started its research and development efforts in 2009 and has collaborated with academia, other agencies and industry, which have positioned NASA to “help achieve the Aviation Climate Action Plan’s CO2 reduction goals by 2050.” NASA has also funded research into technology and early-stage aeronautics innovations, improved turbine and engine performance and pursued new concept vertical lift vehicles. The agency has also performed R&D and demonstrations for EAP technology at different flight ranges.
Moreover, the agency has partnered with the aviation industry for flight demonstrations, such as the X-57 “Maxwell” Project, a component of which used distributed electric propulsion that could be applied to smaller aircraft carrying a few passengers for air taxi or commuter purposes. Additionally, NASA worked with industry for the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration Project to help advance EAP technology enough to introduce a fleet of vehicles using it by 2035. NASA awarded GE Aviation a contract to create a single-aisle commercial aircraft with EAP and the agency awarded magniX a contract to develop a regional commuter hybrid turboprop aircraft—both with planned demonstrations between 2025 and 2026.
However, while NASA has made progress with its aforementioned endeavors, it also faces challenges that may impact costs and schedules. According to the Inspector General, “all of NASA’s EAP-related flight demonstration projects have either experienced or show indications of schedule delays and cost overruns.”
Specifically, the X-57 was supposed to cost $40 million, but it has had more that $47 million in cost overruns and been delayed by almost three years. The project, which was scheduled to consist of four parts, will be canceled after the Mod II flight demonstration scheduled for the end of the year. Furthermore, the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration Project is showing signs, based on the contractor’s estimate, that it may experience similar delays and extra costs, according to the watchdog. Meanwhile, the first magniX flight has been delayed approximately one year.
According to the Inspector General, COVID-19 impacted the EAP-related projects because of supply chain shortages, delivery delays and long lead times for pieces. A majority of NASA’s EAP-related projects also experienced workforce challenges, including personnel shortages and wage pressure. The watchdog noted that there were several other factors impacting these projects, such as “a NASA-wide pattern of over-optimism when creating cost and schedule baselines that can be attributed, in part, to a lack of data for past experimental aviation projects.”
A few projects also experienced unstable funding, and some will experience disruption when NASA’s Electric Aircraft Testbed facility at Glenn Research Center is relocated.
The Inspector General made several recommendations, including for the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration Project manager to coordinate with agency experts to fix estimation challenges for experimental flight-project development and to adjust risk analyses to generate a higher chance and confidence in estimates for costs and schedules. Furthermore, NASA should re-evaluate its Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s planning and support of the 2021 Aviation Climate Action Plan and designate resources to reduce unstable funding for these endeavors.
NASA agreed with the recommendations and outlined plans to address them.