MIT engineers come up with a drone-like plane powered by ionized wind. It requires no propellers or any other moving parts and does not use heavy liquid fuel. The prototype is about 5-lb (2.3-kg) with a 16-ft (5-m) wingspan. In a recent test it made its way through a 197 ft indoor course at MITs duPont Athletic Center.
The ionic wind airplane relies on principles in the interdisciplinary field of “electroaerodynamics”. Engineers carefully position a series of thin wire and foil along the front of the craft and thicker wire/foil towards the rear-end. In so doing the front of the aircraft behaves like a positive electrode, stripping electrons away from air particles and creating ions, which are atoms that emit electromagnetic energy. Ions, now rife with an electromagnet charge are attracted to negative electrodes in the back of the aircraft, producing thrust as they collide with neutral air particles.
Inside of the planes fuselage a collection of lithium-polymer batteries linked up to an electrical grid designed by Professor David Perreault’s Power Electronics Research Group in the Research Laboratory of Electronics can supply electrodes with up to 40 000 volts of power. A very simple and elegant design that could eventually allow, in combination with solar powered drones, a silent craft to stay airborne perpetually with zero emission.
“This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly,” Barrett says
“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.”
Engineers now work toward optimizing the aircraft, increasing the electrodes surface area while keeping it light enough to fly as well as improving control over the flight itself.
The next test would probably involve an outdoor demonstration, where meteorological conditions complicate everything.
Published in Nature.