Star Trek-style ionic plane the biggest thing since Wright brothers
Using electrically charged air molecules, it's the first time a plane with no moving parts has flown
An electric plane inspired by Star Trek that flies silently and has no moving parts has had its first test flight.
The 4.8m battery-powered aircraft, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), uses an ionic wind system, in which colliding, electrically charged air molecules provide thrust, and it is hoped the technology could open the door on a new generation of emissions-free passenger aircraft and silent drones.
Professor Steven Barrett, lead researcher on the project, said the first flight, detailed in the journal Nature, was “super-exciting”. He said: “This is the first time an aeroplane with no moving parts has flown. It’s taken nine years of work to get here and it’s 100 years since the ionic wind was first discovered.”
In the tests, the unmanned craft, weighing just 2.26kg, managed sustained flights at 60m in an MIT gym hall.
Barrett was inspired to launch the project after watching Star Trek’s futuristic shuttle crafts that skimmed through space with “just a blue glow and silent glide”.
”This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn’t have propellers and turbines,” he said.
Ionic wind, also known as electro-aerodynamic thrust, was first identified in the 1920s and explored by engineers in the US and at Britain’s Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in the 1960s, but they were only able to produce very low levels of thrust, insufficient for flight.
To overcome this obstacle, the MIT test aircraft carries an array of thin wires strung beneath the front end of its wings. A high-voltage current passes through the wires via a lightweight power converter and strips negatively charged electrons from surrounding air molecules. This produces a cloud of positively charged ionised air molecules that are attracted to another set of negatively charged wires at the back of the plane, like a giant magnet attracting iron filings. As they flow towards the negative charge, the ions collide millions of times with other air molecules, creating the thrust for the aircraft.
Barrett said it would take “several decades” for the technology to be advanced enough to power passenger aircraft, but unmanned aircraft with a wingspan of up to 24m might be possible in the “nearer term”.
Lockheed Martin has reportedly already expressed interest in the project.
– © Telegraph Media Company Limited