The future of air travel could involve planes that pump out zero emissions, produce virtually zero sound, and have zero moving parts. That’s based on a first-of-its-kind plane, created by engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which just made its maiden flight.
Rather than employing the standard propellers and turbine blades found in regular aircraft, this new light aircraft boasts electrodes on its wings, which produce nitrogen ions to propel it through the air. First hypothesized in the 1920s, this “ionic wind” principle has never previously been used to create electroaerodynamic thrust in an aircraft.
The MIT plane’s debut flight marks the culmination of a nine-year research project. The design used by the team weighs around 5 pounds and features a 5-meter wingspan covered in an array of thin and thick wires, which act as the positive and negative electrodes. The fuselage of the plane meanwhile holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries. These batteries supply electricity to positively charge the wires. They then attract attract and strip away negatively charged electrons from surrounding air molecules, leaving clouds of ions which interact with the negatively charged wires. The result is thrust which propels the aircraft forward.
While it’s undoubtedly exciting, the plane hasn’t yet flown further than 60 meters. This distance was dictated by the size of the gym it was tested inside of. It managed to repeat this journey 10 times, with similar performance each time. In order to be used for longer, more practical outdoor flights, the team is now working to improve the efficiency of the plane’s design. Specifically, they aim to produce more ionic wind with less voltage. They also want to increase the amount of thrust generated per unit area.
“It took a long time to get here,” Steven Barrett, Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, said in a statement. “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.”
A paper describing the work, titled “Flight of an aeroplane with solid-state propulsion,” was recently published in the journal Nature.