First successful flight for experimental electric plane

Ismael LynchNov 24, 2018

A Star Trek-style plane with no moving parts has taken flight for the first time.

Barrett also noted that solid state propulsion tends to miniaturise well, and suggested that smaller drones than those now possible with rotor-based flight could take-off using an ionic wind drive in the future.

In a truly unique and impressive first, MIT engineers announced today the successful flight of a plane with no moving parts. The phenomenon was first identified in the 1920s, but it is only just been applied successfully in avionics. Instead, this aircraft generates thrust from "ionic wind" using a powerful electric field, according to Associated Press.

The air molecules that are left behind are newly ionised, and are in turn attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane. By applying a high voltage to a pair of electrodes, electrons are stripped off nearby air molecules, and the ionized oxygen and nitrogen molecules collide with neutral air molecules as they move from one electrode to the other.

"This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn't have propellers and turbines", Barrett said. The MIT team's model drone could convert only 2.6 percent of its input energy into thrust.

The team's final design resembles a large, lightweight glider. Finally, a 5-meter-wide, 2.5 kilogram, multi-decker craft flew after a few false starts - but only for about 10 seconds.

Barrett's next goal is to improve the efficiency of design, producing great ionic wind with less voltage. Down the line, the team hopes to combine ion propulsion with traditional thrust systems to create larger hybrid aircraft, potentially even cargo and passenger planes.

The engineers readily acknowledge their V2 prototype is inefficient and limited, but it could lead to big things. It's still some way away from an aircraft that could perform the useful mission.

Multi-coloured blueprint of the MIT aircraft design against a black background

'They should be more like the shuttles in Star Trek that have just a blue glow and silently glide.

Barrett collaborated with David Perreault, professor of electrical engineering at MIT, who used advances in materials, batteries, and electronics to develop a power supply and get the batteries to supply electricity at 40,000 volts to generate the ions.

His team is now working on producing more ionic wind with less voltage and increasing the plane's thrust.

It listed possible military applications including the development of silent drones and aircraft, and engines with no infrared signal and thus impossible to detect.

The ionic-wind-powered drone was described in the journal Nature.

Plouraboué said in an email to The Washington Post that the new plane creates "an opening for future progress, in a field which is now going to burst". As the ions rush toward the wires, they sweep adjacent air molecules with them, generating thrust.

"That would mean there is no distinct propulsion system and the airframe - it would all be integrated". "This is the first time we've achieved level flight with an aeroplane - which is a heavier-than-air flying vehicle", Barrett added. “Going from the basic principle to something that actually flies was a long journey of characterizing the physics, then coming up with the design and making it work. After one sleepless, jetlagged night in a hotel, Barrett said, he produced some drawings and concluded it might be a viable propulsion system.

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