The first electric airplane without moving parts uses its design to create buoyancy, and the “ionic wind” method to create thrust. As engineers have shown, it is possible for a flying model to produce the required flow of ionized air to stay on a continuous flight. This new model uses 100% electricity and is completely silent.
As Steven Barrett, MIT’s Associate Professor of Aeronautics, said:
“This is the first airplane that does not use moving parts in the propulsion system and is managing a continuous flight. This event opens new possibilities in an unexplored field, as airplanes can be silent, mechanically simpler and more environmentally friendly. ”
Barret considers that a realistic first step in adopting ion-wind technology could be made by drone manufacturers, while larger aircraft could use hybrid systems. The inspiration of Barrett and his team came from the Star Trek series that he had seen from a young age. Space pictures moving effortlessly and silently into space without the use of moving parts became an obsession. “I was thinking that in the future, airplanes should not have propellers and turbines but just leave a blue glow as they glide smoothly into space.”
The start of work for this project was 9 years ago when Barrett started studying what was known about ion-wind technology, or “electro-aerodynamic thrust”. As a method, it has been known since the 1920s, but nobody ever thought it could be efficient enough to make an airplane fly.
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“One night at a hotel I could not sleep from the jet-lag, I began to think about possible ways of applying the ionic wind. I did some rough operations and saw that the numbers were coming out. “
After several years of work, and many prototype designs, the team ended up with a winged model with a 5-meter-wide wingspan and a weight of 2.27kg. Also included is a thin wiring arrangement which is placed on the front of the wings and is charged at a positive voltage of 20000 volts. At the back of the wings there are similar but thicker electrodes which are charged at a negative voltage of 20000 volts.
This difference of 40000 volts creates the motion of ionized nitrogen molecules in the air from the front of the wing to the rear, and thus the valuable thrust. The energy comes from a lithium-polymer battery pack, and there is also a lightweight voltage converter to boost the battery voltage to the required levels.
The team has at present made a steady flight for a distance of 60 meters, which was the maximum limitation of the size of the MIT duPont Athletic Center which hosted the tests. Successful flight was repeated 10 times, with the same results. “This was the simplest model we could develop to prove that theory works in practice”.
But if we want to fly longer, or be able to fly out, we should improve it further. ” As a first step, the team will focus on improving the thrust density achieved by the propulsion system, and for the future Barrett envisions better flight control systems”.