Quirks & Quarks

A new plane with no moving parts flies by electrifying the air

A small aircraft flies for the very first time with a system of propulsion that uses electrically charged ions to generate thrust.
Artist's impression of M.I.T.'s solid-state aircraft, the first plane to fly without any moving parts. (Christine Y. He)

The successful test flight of a radically new airplane design has given aeronautical engineers a "Wright brothers" moment. Their small aircraft had its first successful flight powered by electroaerodynamic propulsion, which forgoes traditional propellers or jet turbines.

Electrically charged ions help power this aircraft at M.I.T'.s indoor test site. (Steven Barrett)

Flight 1 now boarding

The fixed wing aircraft has a five-metre wingspan, and weighs 2.45 kilograms. It is powered by a custom engineered system that contains a battery stack and a high-voltage power converter.

The system produces thrust directly from electrical energy without the need for any moving parts. The system is called "solid-state propulsion" or "electroaerodynamic" (EAD) propulsion. 

The project was led by Steven Barrett, the director of MIT's Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment, also the leader of the institute's Electric Aircraft  Initiative. The plane flew 60 metres in an indoor space over the course of ten flights, while maintaining an average altitude of .47 metres.

The scientists are excited that the thrust-to-power ratio recorded is comparable to that of conventional propulsion system —including jet engines—although not quite as efficient. This flight makes little noise, and does not produce combustion emissions. 

Electroaerodynmaic propulsion test flight

Solid-state propulsion

Solid-state propulsion, or electroaerodynamic propulsion uses a high-voltage electricity to generate propulsion.  Air molecules are ionized by a positive voltage at the leading edge of the plane's wing. These ionized molecules are then attracted to a high-voltage negatively charge electrode at the trailing edge of the wing, and move across the wing. 

These moving ions collide with neutral air molecules along the way, generating an "ionic wind." This produces a thrust similar to the wind produced by a propeller, but without the noise or moving parts. The key to the system was a specially developed ultralight 40,000-volt power converter. 

Ions take to the air

Thank you for flying EAD

Although this form of propulsion is not as efficient or powerful as conventional airplane engines, Steven Barrett is inspired by the success of this first-ever flight. 

Electroaerodynamic propulsion had been proposed as an alternate system for many years, but had never been put to the test until now. Future experiments will see aircraft designed to improve efficiency, whether they be larger planes, or possibly miniaturized drone type aircraft.

The team hopes that the success of this experiment will increase interest in the technology and bring closer the ultimate goal quieter, cleaner and simpler aircraft.     


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