Ever since the Wright Brothers launched their sustained flight of an aircraft, people have been ferried through the air in planes powered by moving parts—typically, a propellor or jet turbine.
A paper published in Nature this week shows that a team of aeronautics scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has designed, and successfully flown, an entirely new type of aircraft: One that has no moving parts, requires no fossil fuel, and lacks the loud droning sound traditional aircraft can emit—a plane that seems closer to sci-fi than it does aircraft aloft in the skies above Earth.
The paper describes a plane powered by electro-aerodynamics, a process in which “electrical forces accelerate ions in a fluid,” it says, creating a phenomenon called an “ionic wind that produces a thrust force in the opposite direction to ion flow.” Such technology had been around for a while, helping to power spacecraft beyond Earth’s atmosphere, one aerospace engineer told Scientific American. The trick was powering a plane through our planet’s skies.
Put into plain English, here’s how MIT explained the potential advancement in air-flight technology. “When a current passes between two electrodes—one thinner than the other—it creates a wind in the air between. If enough voltage is applied, the resulting wind can produce a thrust without the help of motors or fuel.”
But here’s the catch: The MIT researchers designed a mere drone that weighed about five pounds and had a roughly 16-foot wingspan, Popular Science reported. In ten test flights, the electro-aerodynamically powered plane flew as long as 230 feet at around 11 miles an hour. “Then it crashed into the wall, which wasn’t ideal,” one researcher was quoted as saying.
Maybe that’s not the stuff of future air travel, or even the enduring legend of Kitty Hawk. But the achievement is being greeted as a promising prelude to the future air flight. Electro-aerodynamics may not be close to replacing propellers and jet turbines any time soon, but it could open the door to new alternatives in air travel.
“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.