This Science Fiction Inspired Airplane has no Moving Parts

This aircraft doesn't require turbines or propellers to fly.


Technology, Study
This Science Fiction Inspired Airplane has no Moving Parts | This aircraft doesn't require turbines or propellers to fly.

There is something majestic and awe-inspiring about watching an eagle glide effortlessly across the open sky. Riding the winds, this king of all birds doesn’t even need to flap its wings to soar through the heavens. 

What if it was possible to design an airplane that could soar just as effortlessly with absolutely no moving parts? Thanks to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineer,this dream is one-step closer to becoming a reality.

From science fiction to reality
That’s because MIT engineer, Steven Barrett, asked himself the same question. The aeronautics and astronautics professor was inspired by his childhood love of Star Trek according to Design Boom.

Especially the futuristic spaceships featured in Star Trek; the ones that glided through the star-speckled sky silently, at hyperspeed, without propellers, according to a news release from the university.

“This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn’t have propellers and turbines,” Barrett explained in the news release. “They should be more like the shuttles in Star Trek that have just a blue glow and silently glide.”

Solid-state propulsion
The silent glide or solid-state propulsion involves no moving parts, not even an engine turbine, to propel the aircraft forward,according to MIT . But it is not a new idea. Engineers have been theorizing about ways to create a solid state aircraft using “ionic wind” since the 1920s. 

Electro Aerodynamic Devices (EAD), where ions are excited into creating an“ionic wind” to propel the aircraft forward, boast some benefits not found in standard aircrafts.

First, a“Star Trekesque” electro aerodynamic airplane would be whisper silent in comparison to noisy jet engines. This would make intercity takeoffs and landings a realistic possibility.

A second benefit of aircrafts propelled by charged ions, is the green factor. Electro aerodynamic devices render diesel burning engines superfluous, cutting down on polluting emissions.

The maiden flight
However, for almost a century, the concept of solid-state propulsion remained mostly in the theoretical and science fiction spheres. But Barrett’s team thought they could make it a reality, according to the MIT news release.

After years of work, he finally had a breakthrough: “It was a sleepless night in a hotel when I was jet-lagged, and I was thinking about this and started searching for ways it could be done. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that, yes, it might become a viable propulsion system,” Barrett said in the news release.

Barretts idea, which took a decade to produce, involved layers of wires arranged like a fence below the front edge of the wings. A lithium ion battery was used to charge up the wires.

In the team’s prototype, the positively charged electrodes danced along the wires, while fencelike rows of thicker wires under the back edge of the wing danced with negatively charged electrodes. As opposites attract, the negative ions in the back were attracted to the positive ones in the front. As they flew across the air towards the positive ions, the airplane was propelled through the air.

Although the prototype was only five pounds and 16 feet across, it made headlines when it completed its maiden 200 foot flight in the MIT DuPont Athletic Center gym. And it could have flown further, if not constrained by the limited space inside the gym. The research was published in the journal Nature in November 2018.

Future applications
Barrett hopes to improve on the modest accomplishment of the initial flight. He explains, “This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly. It’s still some way away from an aircraft that could perform a useful mission. It needs to be more efficient, fly for longer, and fly outside.”

For now, this technology is getting a boost from NASA, according to CNET. A solid-state technology that does not have any moving parts to wear out could be a very useful item on long space exploration missions. And that’s not science fiction!

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