MIT flies first-ever aircraft with no moving parts


"Since the Wright brothers" Kitty Hawk took to the skies in 1903, aircraft have relied on moving parts and loud engines to propel them in the sky. That's the ionic wind, and it's essentially the same kind of force generated by a turbine or propeller.

The test aircraft, described in the journal Nature, carries an array of thin wires strung beneath the front end of its wings. Even though it may sound impossible, the research team claimed that this incredible aircraft doesn't need fossil fuel to fly.

He said that he's a Trekkie and that about a decade ago, when he began pondering new forms of aircraft propulsion, he imagined that in the future there should be "planes that fly silently with no moving parts".

Still, Barrett says he sees the potential for this technology to prove useful, even if it never goes beyond drones and small unmanned aircraft.

And unlike conventional planes, it also produces no greenhouse gases or other pollutants.

It was the idea behind the shuttlecrafts that effortlessly skimmed through the air with no moving parts, noise or exhaust in Star Trek.

He explained: "This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn't have propellers and turbines".

Known only as Version 2, the plane was powered by a process called "electroaerodynamic propulsion" which was first proposed in the 1960s.

If enough voltage is applied enough there is enough power to propel a small aircraft.

Barrett's next goal is to improve the efficiency of design, producing great ionic wind with less voltage.

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“It was a sleepless night in a hotel when I was jet-lagged, and I was thinking about this and started searching for ways it could be done, ” he recalls. "It's taken nine years of work to get here, and it's a hundred years since the ionic wind was first discovered".

The teams final design resembles a large, lightweight glider.

The team designed a lightweight plane weighing about five pounds with a five-meter wingspan.

The fuselage of the plane holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries. This is enough to induce "electron cascades", ultimately charging air molecules near the wire. These positively charged ions are attracted to negatively charged structures on the plane called collectors.

"As they flow they collide with air molecules transferring momentum to them".

Barrett and the team noted a pleasing parallel with their revolutionary test and the one that sparked the aerial age: both flights lasted all of 12 seconds. They repeated the flight 10 times, with similar performance.

The engineers readily acknowledge their V2 prototype is inefficient and limited, but it could lead to big things. Before the advent of V2, researchers weren't able to fly anything heavier than a few grams.

The accompanying Nature editorial, listed possible military applications including the development of silent drones and aircraft, adding that engines with no infrared signal meant they would be impossible to detect. Nevertheless, this is not really a weakness but rather an opening for future progress, in a field which is now going to burst.”.

Barrett's team is working on producing more ionic wind with less voltage and increasing the design's thrust density. Those neutral air molecules then stream out of the back of the plane, providing thrust. Ionic wind propulsion systems could be used to create drones that are completely silent, and therefore far less annoying to the people they buzz and swoop over.