Traditional aircraft are powered by loud and mechanical components, with engines and propellers generating the thrust and power necessary to achieve flight. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), however, have developed an airplane that can cruise over ground without the aid of heavy machinery, using only lithium-ion batteries and electricity to ply air quietly.
While it may “glide” it is no mere “glider” and can summon up its own wind on which to fly. The process, detailed in a study published in Nature, hinges on electroaerodynamic propulsion, a system that creates ionic wind through positively and negatively charged electrodes underneath the plane’s wing. The silent aircraft is necessarily small, weighing in at 5.4 pounds with a 16-foot wingspan, fashioning it a prototype for any future commercial applications.
Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, detailed how the electrodes ultimately compel the aircraft to fly. Forty-thousand volts of electricity under the plane’s wing are created by positively and negatively charged electrodes, fostering an an electric current of nitrogen ions. The ions collide with normal air molecules, emitting ionic wind out of the plane’s back and giving it flight.
As Barrett explains: “The ions go from the positive to the negative, colliding all the way with neutral air molecules and creating this wind that goes behind the plane.”
Though it set a new precedent by achieving flight with no moving parts, the system for propelling the silent plane isn’t new. Ionic wind was first cited as a method for achieving flight in the 1960s, according to Nature, although it wasn’t successfully applied to an aircraft until MIT researchers took to a gymnasium to test their methods.
Barrett, for his part, had been laboring to bring this project to reality since 2009. He told MIT Technology Review that science fiction provided the creative impetus: “I was inspired by the science fiction ideas of planes and spacecraft…I thought about what physics could allow that.”
Though the science is nowhere near ready to power commercial aircraft, Barrett explained other applications could be viable on a quicker timeline. The likelihood of drones employing the technology isn’t too far fetched, he explained:
“The near term advantage is probably in noise, especially if you think that perhaps in ten year, we might have urban areas that are filled with drones doing things like monitoring traffic, monitoring air pollution, or may other service we’re yet to imagine. Drones today are quite noisy and irritating.”
Irritating or not, at least your typical consumer drones are a nuisance you can hear in the distance. Ionic wind drones, on the other hand, would just be their stealthy equivalent.