Published: Thu, November 22, 2018
Science | By Michele Flores

This Star Trek-inspired ionic plane can SILENTLY glide through the sky

This Star Trek-inspired ionic plane can SILENTLY glide through the sky

"You could imagine all sorts of military or security benefits to having a silent propulsion system with no infrared signature", said MIT professor Steven Barrett, a co-author on the Nature study. And as these accelerate to the back, they produce an ionic wind, which gives the plane thrust. The generation of the ionic wind was simply too inefficient.

Plouraboue, in an accompanying commentary in the same journal, said the question of whether ionic propulsion can fly an aircraft of several tonnes is still open.

In the near future, ion wind propulsion could be employed to power quiet drones, the team predicts. "For it to work at large scale, we need to integrate the propulsion system into the skin of the aircraft so that the aeroplane skin itself would produce all the thrust", Barrett told The Telegraph via email. The team demonstrates the brief flights of small, lightweight prototypes featuring this technology in the video above.

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

'They should be more like the shuttles in Star Trek that have just a blue glow and silently glide.

And so, nine years ago, the engineer began his ambitious plans for a propulsion system with no moving parts. He eventually came upon “ionic wind, ” also known as electroaerodynamic thrust — a physical principle that was first identified in the 1920s and describes a wind, or thrust, that can be produced when a current is passed between a thin and a thick electrode. Unlike planes and drones, this aircraft doesn't produce any emissions. "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", explained the professor. "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".

The teams final design resembles a large, lightweight glider.

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In the tests, the battery-powered unmanned aircraft, that weighs just five pounds, managed sustained flights of 197 ft in an MIT gym hall.

These wires, which carry a positive charge of 20,000 volts, strips electrons, which have a negative charge, from air molecules.

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

The remaining molecules, now ionized, are attracted to the negatively charged electrodes in the wires at the back of the wing. The futuristic craft instead emits an "ionic wind" which collides with electrically charged air molecules, allowing it to fly. They repeated the flight 10 times, with similar performance. It is possible that ion propulsion may have limits on the maximum size we can build. He also pointed out that so far this system can't handle much weight or fly for very long - but then added that the first flight of the Wright brothers' plane was also very limited.

Near-term applications for the technology could include the development of a new class of silent drone aircraft. Nevertheless, this is not really a weakness but rather an opening for future progress, in a field which is now going to burst.

"That would mean there is no distinct propulsion system and the airframe - it would all be integrated".

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