Could this wacky, sci-fi aircraft design change flying as we know it?

22 Nov 2018

Illustration of what the MIT aircraft would look like flying in the sky. Image: Christine Y He

Researchers have demonstrated a design for an aircraft that could fly on its own power without any need for moving parts, potentially changing flight forever.

Researchers at MIT have revealed video footage of what could be the beginning of a new aeronautic revolution where aircraft of the future are super-quiet gliders.

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. However, the MIT team’s design does away with all of that, instead powering its wacky-looking aircraft using ‘ionic wind’.

The silent system takes a powerful flow of ions generated on board the aircraft and uses it to propel the plane forward over a sustained and steady flight.

Of course it was Star Trek

“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, speaking with MIT News. “This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler and do not emit combustion emissions.”

It only takes a quick look at the design to see why Barrett was inspired by science fiction, specifically the futuristic shuttlecraft seen in Star Trek. 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.

First identified in the 1920s – not long after the first human plane flight – the phenomenon occurs when a current is passed between a thin and thick electrode. If enough voltage is applied, the air in between the electrodes can produce enough thrust to propel a small aircraft.

Since then, however, its use has largely been left to the hobbyists, with many believing it to be impossible to scale it up to the size of a commercial aircraft. After one sleepless, jetlagged night in a hotel, Barrett said, he produced some drawings and concluded it might be a viable propulsion system.

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

A general blueprint for an MIT plane propelled by ionic wind. The system may be used to propel small drones and even lightweight aircraft, as an alternative to fossil fuel propulsion. Image: MIT Electric Aircraft Initiative

‘A field which is now going to burst’

Years later, he and his team have their first lightweight glider with a wingspan of just five metres, weighing only a little more than 2kg. Each of these wings carries an array of thin wires, acting as positively charged electrons, while thicker wires serve as negative electrodes.

Meanwhile, the fuselage holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries supplying 40,000V to the wires. Once energised, the propulsion system begins, colliding ions millions of times over with other air molecules, resulting in thrust.

“This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly,” Barrett said. “It’s still some way away from an aircraft that could perform a useful mission. It needs to be more efficient, fly for longer and fly outside.”

The big caveat to all this is that, while the concept has immense potential for small aircraft such as drones, there is a considerable amount of doubt over whether a human will fly in such an aircraft in the foreseeable future.

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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic