Engineers fly first-ever plane with no moving parts

Engineers fly first-ever plane with no moving parts
Undistorted camera footage from flight 9, with position and energy from camera tracking annotated. Sped up 2x. Credit: Steven Barrett

Since the first airplane took flight over 100 years ago, virtually every aircraft in the sky has flown with the help of moving parts such as propellers, turbine blades, and fans, which are powered by the combustion of fossil fuels or by battery packs that produce a persistent, whining buzz.

Now MIT engineers have built and flown the first-ever plane with no moving parts. Instead of propellers or turbines, the is powered by an "ionic wind"—a silent but mighty flow of ions that is produced aboard the plane, and that generates enough thrust to propel the plane over a sustained, steady flight.

Unlike turbine-powered , the does not depend on fossil fuels to fly. And unlike propeller-driven drones, the new design is completely silent.

"This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system," says 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."

He expects that in the near-term, such ion wind propulsion systems could be used to fly less noisy drones. Further out, he envisions ion propulsion paired with more conventional combustion systems to create more fuel-efficient, hybrid passenger planes and other large aircraft.

Barrett and his team at MIT have published their results in the journal Nature.

Hobby crafts

Barrett says the inspiration for the team's ion plane comes partly from the movie and television series, "Star Trek," which he watched avidly as a kid. He was particularly drawn to the futuristic shuttlecrafts that effortlessly skimmed through the air, with seemingly no moving parts and hardly any noise or exhaust.

"This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn't have propellers and turbines," Barrett says. "They should be more like the shuttles in 'Star Trek,' that have just a blue glow and silently glide."

About nine years ago, Barrett started looking for ways to design a propulsion system for planes 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. If enough voltage is applied, the air in between the electrodes can produce enough thrust to propel a small aircraft.

For years, electroaerodynamic thrust has mostly been a hobbyist's project, and designs have for the most part been limited to small, desktop "lifters" tethered to large voltage supplies that create just enough wind for a small craft to hover briefly in the air. It was largely assumed that it would be impossible to produce enough ionic wind to propel a larger aircraft over a sustained flight.

"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," he recalls. "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."

Ions take flight

The team's final design resembles a large, lightweight glider. The aircraft, which weighs about 5 pounds and has a 5-meter wingspan, carries an array of thin wires, which are strung like horizontal fencing along and beneath the front end of the plane's wing. The wires act as positively charged electrodes, while similarly arranged thicker wires, running along the back end of the plane's wing, serve as negative electrodes.

The fuselage of the plane holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries. Barrett's ion plane team included members of Professor David Perreault's Power Electronics Research Group in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, who designed a power supply that would convert the batteries' output to a sufficiently high voltage to propel the plane. In this way, the batteries supply electricity at 40,000 volts to positively charge the wires via a lightweight power converter.

Once the wires are energized, they act to attract and strip away negatively charged electrons from the surrounding air molecules, like a giant magnet attracting iron filings. The air molecules that are left behind are newly ionized, and are in turn attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane.

As the newly formed cloud of ions flows toward the negatively charged wires, each ion collides millions of times with other air molecules, creating a thrust that propels the aircraft forward.

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. The team flew the plane a distance of 60 meters (the maximum distance within the gym) and found the plane produced enough ionic thrust to sustain flight the entire time. They repeated the flight 10 times, with similar performance.

"This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly," Barrett says. "It's still some way away from an aircraft that could perform a useful mission. It needs to be more efficient, fly for longer, and fly outside."

Barrett's team is working on increasing the efficiency of their design, to produce more with less voltage. The researchers are also hoping to increase the design's thrust density—the amount of thrust generated per unit area. Currently, flying the team's lightweight plane requires a large area of electrodes, which essentially makes up the plane's propulsion system. Ideally, Barrett would like to design an aircraft with no visible propulsion system or separate controls surfaces such as rudders and elevators.

"It took a long time to get here," Barrett says. "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 are viable."

Explore further

Thrusters powered by ionic wind may be efficient alternative to conventional atmospheric propulsion technologies

More information: Haofeng Xu et al. Flight of an aeroplane with solid-state propulsion, Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0707-9
Journal information: Nature

Citation: Engineers fly first-ever plane with no moving parts (2018, November 21) retrieved 23 October 2019 from
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User comments

Nov 21, 2018
Fantastic... Two words... ozone layer. Could there be a way of adapting the airflow to produce ozone (on something the size of Solar Impulse) to fly around in the ozone layer to speed up the replenishment of the hole?

Nov 22, 2018
"Could there be a way of adapting the airflow to produce ozone"

You really don't want to do that. Ozone is a blood poison (ozone binds roughly 1000 times better to hemoglobin than oxygen does. Even though ozone is O3 - which sounds better than O2 - it is not useful for the body in terms of respiration. So you can actually suffocate in an atmosphere that contains too much ozone because you're not getting enough of the O2 to bind)

Ozone at high altitudes is something different. There it's useful because that actually helps filter out UV rays. But planes don't fly that high (transatlantic planes fly at 10-15km...Ozon layer is at about 25km)

Nov 22, 2018
I always find annoyingly sad the use of non metric unit measures in science related topics

On alternative propulsion systems, I wonder if the sharp heating of the air in front/above the plane will be a more effective way to propel/lift it.

Nov 22, 2018
"Undistorted camera footage"

Fake news. This vid was speeded up just like the acosta chop of the white house interns arm. Akin to idiots on news sites reddening mars pics to make them more red planety.

Lies are everywhere. We cant NOT lie.

Nov 22, 2018
I think calling it sustained flight is misleading. Sustained for a few seconds.

Nov 22, 2018
I think calling it sustained flight is misleading. Sustained for a few seconds.

The same can be said of Kitty Hawk and see what that led to. Not bad for a prototype of an aircraft propulsion system never seen or tried before.

Nov 24, 2018
This tech is so misleading. Carbon netural is a false claim for sure as it needs electic power to ionize air.

No pollution is another misconception to its believers, because high voltage breaks more oxygen then nitrogen due to difference in molecular weight and bonding force, subsequently creating loads of ozone, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide... they are actually classified by human beings as air pollutants and the world is spending lots of money and resources to combat against.

Nov 26, 2018
I think calling it sustained flight is misleading. Sustained for a few seconds.

They were inside a gym with a finite length...
If they'd continued the flight, it most definitely would have found its limits when crashing into the wall.

It is most likely possible for the technology to fly for longer distances; they are just currently limited to the appropriate test area, which I assume is inside the gym in order to minimize the error factors (wind/animals/drunkards), also the technology is proprietary, so they do not want too many onlookers just yet.

Rant over.

I too look forward to see what they can "drive" this technology to... Planetary shuttles and possibly also spaceflight; if they somehow can boost the technology further.
We do know that other (currently very slow acceleration) forms of ion drives work in space (not this iteration, as it requires molecules to be moved to provide thrust).
Give them time and we'll see what they can make of it!

Jan 03, 2019
The first ion propelled aircraft in history to carry its power supply is protected under US Patent No. 10,119,527. It predates the very inefficient MIT craft by over a decade. There are many officials that have seen it fly with onboard power, under verifiable conditions. Here are 4 different videos of it flying with the power supply onboard and a link to the website, US Patent, and specific observers names.

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