Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said they have successfully flown the first “solid state” airplane that has no moving parts and does not rely on fossil fuels to fly.
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.
“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, according to the research center’s news office. “This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions.”
Nearly 115 years ago, the Wright brothers made history by launching the first man-made flight — a feat that ushered in human domination of the skies.
Ever since that first flight, most aircraft have relied on moving parts such as propellers or turbines to power them through the air.
Not so for the MIT team’s plane, which was developed around the concept of “ionic wind,” or electrodynamic thrust.
To make the flight, an onboard battery pack in the fuselage supplied 20,000 volts of electricity to an array of wires attached to the width of the plane underneath the wing. The electric field created a flow of nitrogen ions from the wires to rods at the back of the plane that was powerful enough to generate enough thrust for a sustained flight.
Barrett, who is lead author of the project, said the idea for the ion plane came from the TV series “Star Trek”. As a kid, Barret was inspired by the shuttles that glided through the air silently without any moving parts.
That fascination led Barrett to the concept of ionic wind, which dates back to the 1920s.
The team designed a lightweight plane weighing about five pounds with a five-meter wingspan. Testing the design inside a gym, the team successfully flew the plane a distance of 60 meters, a feat that was repeated 10 times.
The MIT team hope to develop their ion plane so that it can fly for longer with less voltage. In the nearer term, the design could have applications in making smaller aircraft, such as drones, less noisy.
“This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly,” Barrett told MIT news.
“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.”