MIT researchers are designing a fuelless, propellerless silent drone

“The future of flight shouldn’t be things with propellers and turbines, and should be more like what you see in Star Trek, with a kind of a blue glow, and something that silently glides through the air.”

This is the vision of aerospace engineer Steven Barrett, who has been working alongside other researchers at MIT to make this blue-glowy, silent-glidey aircraft a reality. And, after the successful test flight of their most recent drone, they may have cracked the code.

The secret is something called “ionic wind”. This “wind” uses an electric field to generate charged nitrogen ions and propel them out of the back of the drone, creating thrust. This system, which has been used for spacecraft propulsion for decades, requires no moving parts to function, making it completely silent.

The ion-powered drone MIT built was airborne for around 9 seconds, flying 45 metres before its landing. While this might not seem like much distance at all, this voyage was groundbreaking. Though engineers have been playing with the idea of ion-propelled flight since the 1920’s, it’s always been believed that an ion drive craft would be too heavy to take off. This issue was solved by some clever compromises, namely a short wingspan and light frame.

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The researchers warn that the current technology is very basic, and we’re still a way away from functional ion-drive drones. But nonetheless, they’re confident that they’ve discovered something big: the possibility of a solid-state plane that doesn’t require combustible fossil fuels to run.

So what’s the next step? Getting more advanced: “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.”

While we’re still far away from a full ion-propelled aeroplane, this successful test flight clears the path for silent and eco-friendly drones. The design lends itself well for small, discreet aircraft, though anything larger could prove to be a problem. Scaling up means things get heavier, and the larger the craft, the larger the ion drive needs to be. So don’t expect to hop on a completely silent Airbus any time soon.

But who knows? Maybe this technology will lead to more fuel-efficient and quieter hybrid aeroplanes in the future.

Image credit: Christine Y. He

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