By MALCOLM RITTER, AP Science Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — A nearly silent, drone-sized aircraft has shown it can fly, thanks to a scientist who was inspired by watching “Star Trek” as a child.

With neither propellers nor jets, the airplane gets its thrust by applying a strong electric field to the air. That general idea has been demonstrated at science fairs, but the new work shows it can power a free-flying airplane.

A new MIT plane is propelled via ionic wind. Batteries in the fuselage (tan compartment in front of plane) supply voltage to electrodes (blue/white horizontal lines) strung along the length of the plane, generating a wind of ions that propels the plane forward. (Image credit: Christine Y. He )

So can people look forward to traveling in planes that are almost silent and emit no air pollution?

“Not anytime soon,” says Steven Barrett of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who reported the results in a study released Wednesday by the journal Nature.

It’s not clear whether the technology could work at such a large scale, he said in a telephone interview. And even if it can, it would take a few decades to develop such planes, he said.

Before that, the approach might be used in airplane-like drones that perform tasks like environmental monitoring and surveillance, he said. As drones become more common in urban skies, the lack of noise would be an advantage in making them less bothersome to people on the ground, he said.

The Nature paper reports the results of 10 test flights inside an MIT athletic building. With a wingspan of about 16 feet (5 meters), the five-pound (2.45-kilogram) plane sailed along at about 11 mph (17 kph). Each flight covered about 60 yards (55 meters).

Barrett, 35, said he was inspired as a child by watching “Star Trek” television episodes and movies, where he was struck by the shuttles that flew with no moving parts in their propulsion systems. He recalled thinking, “There should be a way things should fly without having propellers and (jet) turbines.”

As an adult, he focused on that and came across a concept called “ionic wind.”

For the MIT airplane, that involves a series of thin wires at the front of the plane that generate a powerful electric field. The field strips electrons from air molecules, turning the molecules into positively charged particles called ions. Those ions flow toward negatively charged parts of plane, colliding with ordinary air molecules and transferring energy to them. That produces a wind that provides thrust for the plane, Barrett explained.

A general blueprint for an MIT plane propelled by ionic wind. The system may be used to propel small drones and even lightweight aircraft, as an alternative to fossil fuel propulsion. (Image credit: MIT Electric Aircraft Initiative)

A similar process has long been used in outer space to propel some spacecraft, he said.

Barrett said he hopes to find a way to eliminate the “very slight buzz” one can hear.

“I think they’re onto something here,” said Pat Anderson, a professor of aerospace engineering at the Daytona Beach, Florida, campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He had no role in the research.

He called the results impressive. But the experimental aircraft lacks the range and endurance to serve as a useful drone, and it’s not clear whether the technology could be scaled up to fix that or become useful for propelling a passenger plane, he said.
Follow Malcolm Ritter at @MalcolmRitter
The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

  1. Ethan Krauss says:
    US patent number 10,119,527 filed in 2014.

    It is all over the news now that MIT is the “first” to fly an ion powered craft with the power supply onboard, and that it is the “most important thing since the Wright brothers.” However, my invention has been able to lift the power supply since 2006! And yes, the device is silent and has no moving parts!

    In the following video, this version of the craft flies for 1 minute and 51 seconds continuously, with a few seconds of short flights worth of energy still left in the onboard power supply. Since the craft is tethered with nylon thread, the only visual indication of lift is during the takeoff and landing, but it produces a very stable upward pull.

    MIT was NOT the first, the news outlets have been in error. The device has been previously transported to GLIDE, here in Ohio, where it was demonstrated and examined. In addition, the flight has been observed numerous times in front of aerospace engineers. While this prototype flies for almost 2 minutes, there are now commercially available solar panels that would allow to fly all day long.