Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said they have successfully flown the first “solid state” airplane that has no moving parts and does not rely on fossil fuels to fly.

“This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system,”

– Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, according to the research center’s news office.

Ever since that first flight, most aircraft have relied on moving parts such as propellers or turbines to power them through the air.

Unlike every other plane in existence, this aircraft does not depend on fossil fuels to fly. And unlike propeller-driven drones, the design is completely silent.

The small prototype aircraft weighs about 5 pounds and has a 5-meter wingspan, carries an array of thin wires, which are strung like horizontal fencing along and beneath the front end of the plane’s wing.

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

Once the wires are energized, they act to attract and strip away negatively charged electrons from the surrounding air molecules, like a giant magnet attracting iron filings. The air molecules that are left behind are newly ionized and are in turn attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane.

As the newly formed cloud of ions flows toward the negatively charged wires, each ion collides millions of times with other air molecules, creating a thrust that propels the aircraft forward.

In an editorial, the journal Nature, which published the study, said its success would encourage other sectors to re-visit technology that was long thought to be confined to sci-fi films. Also listing possible military applications including the development of silent drones and aircraft and engines with no infrared signal and thus impossible to detect.

Reference:

Haofeng Xu, Yiou He, Kieran L. Strobel, et al. Flight of an aeroplane with solid-state propulsion Naturevolume 563, pages532–535 (2018)