Published: Sat, November 24, 2018
Sci-tech | By April Francis

MIT Experimental Plane Can Fly Silently, With No Jets or Propellers

MIT Experimental Plane Can Fly Silently, With No Jets or Propellers

MIT scientists have built and flown the first-ever Star Trek-inspired plane with no moving parts, paving the way for quieter, simpler aircraft with no combustion emissions.

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

Researchers at MIT have achieved the first sustained flight powered by ionic wind.

Prof Barrett said he watched the TV series avidly at home when he was growing up in England.

He was especially impressed by the show's futuristic shuttle crafts that skimmed through the air producing hardly any noise or exhaust.

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

"In Star Trek you have shuttlecraft gliding silently past", he said, according to Scientific American.

The flight is a milestone in "ionic wind" technology and could pave the way for quieter and environmentally cleaner aircraft in the future, engineers said when they published their findings in the journal Nature on Wednesday. A large part of the success was due to the team's computer aided design approach, and the decision to use super light weight building materials such as carbon fiber, balsa wood, a plastic called polystyrene, shrink-wrap plastic, and Kevlar - none of which are ideal for building sturdy commercial airplanes.

The fuselage of the plane holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries.

The MIT team hope to develop their ion plane so that it can fly for longer with less voltage. The researchers used batteries and an innovative power converter to create an electrical field along a fine wire. This is enough to induce "electron cascades", ultimately charging air molecules near the wire.

The remaining molecules, now ionized, are attracted to the negatively charged electrodes in the wires at the back of the wing.

This stream of ions is generated aboard the aircraft and produces enough thrust to propel the plane over sustained, steady flight.

Ionic technologies have always been a staple of sci-fi movies.

Research leader Steven Barrett, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and his colleagues, Thomas Sebastian and Mark Woolston, have tested the aircraft in the confines of a gymnasium at MIT - the largest indoor space they could find. They flew the plane at a distance of 60 meters, a feat that was repeated 10 times. Starting nine years ago, his goal was to create a silent craft with no moving parts, deciding on the ionic wind system - otherwise known as electro-aerodynamic thrust - as its means of propulsion. "If enough voltage is applied, the resulting wind can produce a thrust without the help of motors or fuel". "The nearest term application would be for fixed-wing drones that have wing spans of a few metres to perhaps 20 metres", Barrett said.

Franck Plouraboué, a senior researcher at the Institute of Fluid Mechanics in Toulouse in France (who was not involved in the research), added: "This is not really a weakness but rather an opening for future progress, in a field which is now going to burst". 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. “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. Its propulsion system has no moving parts.

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