Silent glider: the first aircraft powered by ionic thrust technology takes flight


November 26 (UPI) – The engineers performed the very first flight using ionic thrust technology. This is the first time that an airplane is flying without moving parts.

The aircraft is powered by several electric motors that produce and expel charged particles. Ionic wind, or ionic surge, is sometimes called electro-dynamic thrust. Technology has proven itself in space, but it is easier to create dynamics in a relative vacuum than to move in the thick atmosphere of the Earth.

Steven Barrett, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, has spent nearly a decade translating technology to Earth.

The latest version of Barrett's aircraft features two rows of long metal strands, pairs of thick and thin electrodes. When enough voltage goes into the front row, or 40,000 volts of electricity, the electrons are removed from the air between the two electrodes, producing nitrogen ions. As the back row carried a negative charge, the ions rushed towards the wire, producing an electro-dynamic thrust.

On the last test flight, the thrust was strong enough to keep the aircraft flying at nearly 200 feet. The plane slid across the room at 11 miles per hour.

Barrett and his research partners described the feat and the technology behind it this month in the journal Nature.

"This has potentially opened up unexplored new possibilities for quieter, mechanically simpler aircraft that do not emit combustion emissions," Barrett told MIT News.

The latest prototype, baptized by Barrett Version 2, looks like a small glider. It weighs just over five pounds and has a wingspan of over 16 feet.

Of course, the plane is not ready to carry passengers or cargo, but the craft has proved that electro-hydraulic thrust can be used to propel aircraft on Earth.

"It was the simplest plane we could design to prove the concept that an ion plane could fly," said Barrett. "There is still a distant plane that could perform a useful mission, it must be more efficient, fly longer and get out."

Barrett and his colleagues will now start making their thrust more powerful and their aircraft more efficient.

"It took a long time to get here," said Barrett. "Moving from the basics to something really stealing was a long journey of characterizing physics, then design and implementation, and the possibilities of this type of propulsion system are now viable."


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