Science

Star Trek-inspired plane powered by ‘IONIC WINDS’ unveiled

Star Trek-inspired plane powered by ‘IONIC WINDS’ unveiled”

A 10-member team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced on Wednesday that it had flown the experimental unpiloted aircraft powered by a technology called electroaerodynamic propulsion 10 times in an indoor athletic centre at MIT.

The five metre wingspan glider-like plane has no propellers, turbines or any other moving parts, and is completely silent, MailOnline reports. The electric field created a flow of nitrogen ions from the wires to rods at the back of the plane that was powerful enough to generate enough thrust for a sustained flight. "The future of flight shouldn't be things with propellors and turbines and should be more like what you see in Star Trek", Professor Steven Barrett, of the MA... He was especially impressed by the show's futuristic shuttle crafts that skimmed through space with "just a blue glow and silently glide".

Professor Steven Barrett, lead researcher on the project at MIT in MA, told the Telegraph that the plane's first flight, which is detailed in the journal Nature, was "super exciting".

'This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions'. The air molecules that are left behind are newly ionized, and are in turn attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane. Instead, the plane is kept in flight by an ionic wind system.

To make the flight, an onboard battery pack in the fuselage supplied 20,000 volts of electricity to an array of wires attached to the width of the plane underneath the wing.

So while it will still be a couple of years before the technology advances enough to power a passenger aircraft, an unmanned aircraft could be on the cards soon. "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", explained the professor.

It listed possible military applications including the development of silent drones and aircraft, and engines with no infrared signal and thus impossible to detect. "It turned out it needed many years of work to get from that to a first test flight".

Prof Guy Gratton, an aerospace engineer and visiting professor at Cranfield University, said: "It's clearly very early days: but the team at MIT have done something we never previously knew was possible in using accelerated ionised gas to propel an aircraft".

The researchers conducted 11 test flights in which V2 flew about 200 feet (60 meters), typically flying less than 6.5 feet (2 meters) off the ground.

Moving forward, the team's next challenge is to improve their design's efficiency, producing more ionic wind with less voltage.

In an editorial, the journal Nature, which published the study, said its success would encourage other sectors to re-visit technology that was long thought to be confined to sci-fi films. Going from the basic principle to something that actually flies was a long journey of characterising the physics, then coming up with the design and making it work.

The end result is a propulsion system that is entirely electrically powered, nearly silent, and with a thrust-to-power ratio comparable to that achieved by conventional systems such as jet engines.



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