Published: Thu, November 22, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

First successful flight for experimental electric plane

First successful flight for experimental electric plane

Instead of propellers or turbines, the aircraft is powered by electrohydrodynamic thrust or the so-called "ionic wind", a phenomenon first identified in the 1960s. The aircraft has no moving parts, does not depend on fossil fuels to fly, and is completely silent.

The engineers have described their work in a paper to be published in the journal Nature on Friday.

This is not the first time that researchers have explored aircraft without moving parts. "Now the possibilities for this kind of propulsion system are viable".

"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.

'This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions'. Further out, he envisions ion propulsion paired with more conventional combustion systems to create more fuel-efficient, hybrid passenger planes and other large aircraft. When a current passes between two electrodes, 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".

Some 115 years after the first powered flight, scientists have developed a radical new approach toward flying in the form of a small, lightweight and virtually noiseless airplane that gets airborne with no moving parts like propellers or turbine blades.

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. It has a number of thin electrodes running across its wings, and at the front of these are thin wires, while at the back is an aerofoil - a curved surface to produce the lift, like on a regular plane wing.

The project was inspired by the shuttlecraft featued in sci-fi series Star Trek
The project was inspired by the shuttlecraft featued in sci-fi series Star Trek Credit Sports

The fuselage of the plane holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries. A major one was developing the power converter that let them step up the voltage of the batteries to extremely high levels.

EAD airplane design. a, Computer-generated rendering of the EAD airplane. As the ions rush toward the wires, they sweep adjacent air molecules with them, generating thrust. These ions are attracted to negatively charged structures on the plane's other end called collectors.

The team, which also included Lincoln Laboratory staff Thomas Sebastian and Mark Woolston, flew the plane in multiple test flights across the gymnasium in MIT's duPont Athletic Center-the largest indoor space they could find to perform their experiments.

"It's clearly very early days: but the team at MIT have done something we never previously knew was possible, in using accelerated ionised gas to propel an aircraft", said Guy Gratton, aerospace engineer and visiting professor at Cranfield University, who was not involved in the study. "But I started looking into this and went through a period of about five years, working with a series of graduate students to improve fundamental understanding of how you could reduce ionic winds efficiently, and how that could be optimised".

The team was limited by the length of their testing room, but the demonstration was enough as a proof of concept that ionic drive can sustain flight significantly longer than is possible with just gliding. Nevertheless, this is not really a weakness but rather an opening for future progress, in a field which is now going to burst.

The main challenge facing the team now is designing a smaller battery which can produce more ionic winds with a lesser voltage. But the achievement is being greeted as a promising prelude to the future air flight.

When the Wright brothers made their historic flight in December 1903, it didn't receive that much attention. The same is true today. The work was also funded through the Charles Stark Draper and Leonardo career development chairs at MIT.

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