Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology have, for the first time in aviation history, created an aircraft that can take off without moving parts.
With no propellers or turbines, the light aircraft is powered by what is called ‘ionic wind’, a silent flow of ions produced aboard the plane which generates enough thrust to propel the plane over a sustained steady flight.
Unlike conventional aircraft, it does not depend on fossil fuels to fly and is also completely silent.
Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said: “This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system. This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions.”
Barrett went on to describe how he expects that in the near-term, such ion wind propulsion systems could be used to fly less noisy drones and also envisions ion propulsion paired with more conventional combustion systems to create more fuel-efficient, hybrid passenger planes and other large aircraft in the future.
According to news put out by the MIT team, Barrett had been looking for ways to design a propulsion system for planes with no moving parts for around nine years before he found “ionic wind,” also known as electroaerodynamic thrust.
First identified in the 1920s, Electroaerodynamic thrust describes a wind, or thrust, that can be produced when a current is passed between a thin and a thick electrode.
The principle behind it means that, if enough voltage is applied, the air in between the electrodes can produce enough thrust to propel a small aircraft.
For years, electroaerodynamic thrust has mostly been a hobbyist’s project, and designs have for the most part been limited to small, desktop ‘lifters’ tethered to large voltage supplies that create just enough wind for a small craft to hover briefly in the air and was largely assumed that it would be impossible to produce enough ionic wind to propel a larger aircraft over a sustained flight
On the long development process, Barrett said: “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. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that, yes, it might become a viable propulsion system and it turned out it needed many years of work to get from that to a first test flight.”
He added: “It took a long time to get here. 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. Now the possibilities for this kind of propulsion system are viable.”
This research was supported, in part, by MIT Lincoln Laboratory Autonomous Systems Line, the Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grant and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART).
Additional funding was obtained through the Charles Stark Draper and Leonardo career development chairs at MIT.