New Space-Age Ion Propulsion Plane Has No Moving Parts

A team of experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology managed to unlock the process

A team of experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology managed to unlock the process

A 10-member team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced on Wednesday that it had flown the experimental unpiloted aircraft powered by a technology called electroaerodynamic propulsion 10 times in an indoor athletic centre at MIT. Once the front wires are powered up, they attract surrounding air molecules and strip away negatively charged electrons - that's the ionization part. Batteries in the fuselage (tan compartment in front of plane) supply voltage to electrodes (blue/white horizontal lines) strung along the length of the plane, generating a wind of ions that propels the plane forward.

Barrett was inspired by Star Trek, which he watched as a child.

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".

It's similar to the ion drives that power some NASA spacecraft, and it was motivated, the authors say, by another sort of craft: The shuttles in Star Trek that fly without obvious engines or noise, just a faint blue glow.

"This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system", said Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, in a statement.

"This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions", Barrett said. The air molecules that are left behind are newly ionized, and are in turn attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane.

The project's foundation, ionic wind, was first identified back in the 1920s; it results in a thrust when current is passed between thin and thick electrodes.

In the prototype plane, wires at the leading edge of the wing have 600 watts of electrical power pumped through them at 40,000 volts.

Guy Gratton, an aerospace engineer and visiting professor at Cranfield University, said: "It's clearly very early days: but the team at MIT have done something we never previously knew was possible, in using accelerated ionised gas to propel an aircraft".

And so, nine years ago, the engineer began his ambitious plans for a propulsion system with no moving parts.

They fit their design underneath the wings of a 5.5 pound fixed-wing drone with a sixteen-foot wingspan, and succeeded in flying nearly 200 feet after a bungee-assisted launch.

Though the idea is not new, past efforts to create an ion-powered aircraft have been limited by the need for high voltages and very small plane sizes.

This breakthrough has not been possible before because our technology simply wasn't advanced enough. The novel invention may soon provide a viable alternative to fossil fuel propulsion for flying small drones and even lightweight aircraft.

“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.

The researchers conducted 11 test flights in which V2 flew about 200 feet (60 meters), typically flying less than 6.5 feet (2 meters) off the ground.

"It took a long time to get here", he said.

In the long-term, the engineers are hoping to design an aircraft with no visible propulsion system or separate controls such as rudders or elevators.

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