This small plane is first in the world to fly with no moving parts, study says. How?

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a small plane fly with no moving parts for the first time ever, according to a study in the journal Nature. Instead, it uses “ionic wind” to fly around.
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a small plane fly with no moving parts for the first time ever, according to a study in the journal Nature. Instead, it uses “ionic wind” to fly around. Screenshot from Nature video

Steven Barrett, an aerospace engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he got the idea for his latest research study in part from a popular TV show.

“In Star Trek you have shuttlecraft gliding silently past,” he said, according to Scientific American. “I thought, ‘We should have aircraft like that.’”

Now, Barrett is one of the authors of a new study published in the journal Nature, which details the first-ever flight of a small aircraft without the use of moving parts.

Instead, the aircraft flies silently — and without using fossil fuels — by using “ionic wind,” the study says.

Barrett said in a press release from MIT that he first started thinking about how to fly a small aircraft without moving parts nine years ago.

“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,” he recalled in the press release. “I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that, yes, it might become a viable propulsion system.

“And it turned out it needed many years of work to get from that to a first test flight.”

So how did the aircraft — with a wingspan of 16 feet — fly and make history?

Wires around the wing of the aircraft are charged with lithium-polymer batteries, the study says. Wires near the front of the wing are positively charged, while others in the back are negatively charged, and ions are sent barreling back to those negatively-charged wires in a sort of magnetic pull.

Barrett described it as “millions of collisions between (nitrogen atom) ions and neutral air molecules,” according to the Scientific American, which likened the process as “creating a wind that pushes the plane forward fast and hard enough to fly.”

While testing the aircraft, Barrett says there “were some pretty epic crashes,” according to Science Magazine. But after hundreds of test runs — and the use of a “slingshotlike apparatus” to get it off the ground — the small aircraft managed to travel nearly 200 feet.

It flew with the use of “ionic wind” for 10 test flights, the study notes.

But don’t expect this method to be used in larger planes anytime in the immediate future, Barrett cautions.

“This was the simplest possible plane we could design that could prove the concept that an ion plane could fly,” Barrett said in the press release. “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.”

But Daniel Drew, an electrical engineer at the University of California who was not involved in the study, heralded the flight as “a great first step” to show how the process could work, according to Science Magazine. But, he warned, keeping a bigger plane in the air “would be extremely difficult to achieve from a physics standpoint.”

Still, Barrett says he sees the potential for this technology to prove useful, even if it never goes beyond drones and small unmanned aircraft.

“Imagine 10 or 20 years from now—we could have drones everywhere,” he said, according to Scientific American. “If those are all noisy, they’ll degrade our quality of life. But this is silent.”

Guy Gratton, an aerospace engineer and professor at Cranfield University, agreed that the technology in this study could help make flight more environmentally friendly, according to The Guardian.

“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,” he told The Guardian. “Aeronautical engineers around the world are already trying hard to find ways to use electric propulsion, and this technology will offer something else that in the future may allow manned and unmanned aircraft to be more efficient, and non-polluting.

“In particular, the fact that they have already got this out of the laboratory, and flown a battery driven model aircraft – albeit so far on a very small and controlled scale – is very exciting.”