MIT flies first-ever aircraft with no moving parts

22 November, 2018, 19:12 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • The project was inspired by the shuttlecraft featued in sci-fi series Star Trek

(Nanowerk News) Since the first airplane took flight over 100 years ago, virtually every aircraft in the sky has flown with the help of moving parts such as propellers, turbine blades, and fans, which are powered by the combustion of fossil fuels or by battery packs that produce a persistent, whining buzz.

"This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly", Barrett told MIT news. Those charged molecules then flow along the electrical field towards a second wire at the back of the wing, bumping into neutral air molecules on the way, and imparting energy to them. Cranked up with enough voltage, the "ionic wind" system can produce enough thrust to propel a small aircraft in steady and sustained flight. Researcher Steven Barrett said that the idea came to him from watching "Star Trek" as a child. “They should be more like the shuttles in ‘Star Trek, that have just a blue glow and silently glide.”. "This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions". After countless trials and errors, Barrett and his team produced a 5-pound aircraft featuring a 5-meter wingspan and housing several thin wires that act as positively charged electrodes. The fuselage carries a series of lithium-polymer batteries and a power converter that can generate up to 40,000 volts of electricity.

"This would be much more efficient than the current situation where you have concentrated engines that generate thrust, which have to fight against a large passive airframe that generates drag", he said.

In the immediate future, the MIT team hope to increase the range and speed of the plane, primarily by scaling up the size of the overall machine.

So while it will still be a couple of years before the technology advances enough to power a passenger aircraft, an unmanned aircraft could be on the cards soon.

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. But his journey to today's gliding flight was not an easy one.


"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 said.

Barrett says he's confident that the system can be scaled up, and he sees the most immediate applications in the world of drones.

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.

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". “[Outside of drone applications], it is hard to infer how much it could influence aircraft propulsion in the future.

In an editorial, the journal Nature, which published the study, said its success would encourage other sectors to re-visit technology that was long thought to be confined to sci-fi films. "Now the possibilities for this kind of propulsion system are viable", concluded Barrett.

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