In a truly unique and impressive first, MIT engineers announced today the successful flight of a plane with no moving parts. The novel invention may soon provide a viable alternative to fossil fuel propulsion for flying small drones and even lightweight aircraft.
“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.”
This is because this revolutionary craft is powered by something called “ionic wind." The term refers to a powerful flow of ions produced by the specially designed plane whose thrust is strong enough to propel the aircraft into a sustained steady flight.
And better yet, since no moving parts are required, this technology is also completely silent. Barrett claims that his idea for the plane came from watching the futuristic shuttles featured on TV show Star Trek, drawing inspiration from their near effortless journeys through space.
“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. But his journey to today's gliding flight was not an easy one.
For starters, he had to fight the largely held notion that it was impossible to produce enough ionic wind to propel larger aircraft over sustained flights. “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,” Barrett says. “And it turned out it needed many years of work to get from that to a first test flight.”
But work it did finally! After countless trials and errors, Barrett and his team produced a 5-pound aircraft featuring a 5-meter wingspan and housing several thin wires that act as positively charged electrodes.
Further equipped with a fuselage of lithium-polymer batteries, the lightweight plane has a power supply that can produce 40,000 volts to positively charge the wires via a lightweight converter. So far, the plane has already flown as a distance of 60 meters (the maximum distance within the gym) 10 times.
And Barrett believes these first flights are only the beginning. “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," concluded Barrett.
The project's results are published today in the journal Nature.