World's first plane with no moving parts takes flight

A team of scientists have built and flown a Star Trek-inspired plane with no moving parts for the first time

The silent, lightweight aircraft does not depend on fossil fuels and is seen as a major next step in aviation technology.

The light aircraft is powered by an “ionic wind”, a silent but strong flow of ions (charged atom or molecule) that generate enough thrust to propel the plane.

Traditional aircraft are kept in the air by propellers, turbine blades, and fans, which are powered by the combustion of fossil fuels or battery packs.

Steven Barrett, an associate professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said the inspiration for his team’s ion plane came partly from Star Trek which he watched avidly as a kid.

He said the futuristic shuttlecrafts featured in the show made him think that planes did not need to have propellers and turbines.

“They should be more like the shuttles in ‘Star Trek,’ that have just a blue glow and silently glide,” he said.

A new MIT plane is propelled via ionic wind. Credit: Christine Y. He

The plane had "potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions," Professor Barrett said.

In the near future, ion wind propulsion systems could be used to fly less noisy drones, he predicted, while looking even further ahead, he said ion propulsion technology could be paired with more conventional combustion systems to create more fuel-efficient, hybrid passenger planes and other large aircraft.

The team flew the plane 60 metres in multiple test flights across a gymnasium and found the plane produced enough ionic thrust to sustain flight the entire time.

The aircraft, which weighs about five pounds and has a five metre wingspan, carries thin wires along and beneath the front end of the wing.

These wires act as positively charged electrodes, while similarly arranged thicker wires, running along the back of the plane’s wing, serve as negative electrodes.

The fuselage of the plane holds lithium-polymer batteries designed a sufficiently high voltage to propel the plane, supplying electricity at 40,000 volts to positively charge the wires via a lightweight power converter.