Simanaitis Says

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A 21ST-CENTURY WRIGHT FLYER

A PROTOTYPE AIRPLANE with ion drive has made its first successful flights. Its EAD (electroaerodynamic) propulsion has no moving parts; rather, it depends on high voltage generating thrust via an “ionic wind.” Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working for seven years to make this ion-drive technology feasible in other than outer-space applications.

In this schematic, high voltage generates an ionic wind, the reaction to which is an upward thrust. Image from UAS Vision.

The MIT article “Flight of an Aeroplane with Solid-state Propulsion” appeared in Nature, 563 (2018), with a freely available abstract. “Airplane With No Moving Parts Takes Flight” by Frankie Schembri, was published in Science, November 21, 2018. Here are tidbits gleaned from these sources as well as from my usual Internet sleuthing.

Ion Drive uses a strong electric field to generate fast-moving particles called ions. These ions provide only meagre thrust, but enough to maneuver craft in the vacuum of outer space. Deep Space I and Dawn spacecraft both are powered by ion thrusters.

However, with the Earth’s gravity and air resistance, according to Wikipedia, an ion drive would theoretically take two days to accelerate a car from a standstill to highway speed.

An Earth-residing ion-drive aircraft would have to be lightweight and efficient indeed.

MIT’s EAD Craft is the first of its kind capable of lifting its own weight, in this case, about five lbs. Its 5-meter (16.4-ft.) wingspan also defines four tiers of electrodes generating its ionic wind. Each Venetian-blind element consists of positively charged stainless steel wires a few inches ahead of highly negatively charged thicker wires. Its 160-225-volt Lithium polymer battery and lightweight power converter are housed in the fuselage.

MIT’s EAD craft. Image from nature.com.

As described in MIT News, “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.”

Several videos are embedded in the MIT News report.

MIT’s duPont Athletic Center proved to be the EAD craft’s counterpart to the Wright Brothers’ sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Whereas the Wrights had to contend with Kitty Hawk’s weather, MIT researchers had to perform their experiments at night to fit the gym’s sports teams commitments.

The facility’s size dictated flights of no more than 60 meters/197 ft. However, it took hundreds of attempts before the EAD craft probed that distance in sustained flight.

EAD craft soars in MIT’s duPont Athletic Center gymnasium.

Its Historic Flight. The MIT EAD craft’s 197-ft. flight exceeded distance of the Wright’s first attempt. Orville’s—and mankind’s—first successful powered heavier-than-air flight on December 17, 1903, was only 120 ft. Later that day, Wilbur flew for 852 ft. The Wrights got perhaps 10 ft. off the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; the EAD craft, a reported .5 meter/1.6 ft.

What of Ionic Wind’s Future? Ionic drive is completely silent and, of course, it does not depend on fossil fuels. Less-noisy drones are one possible near-term application. Further out, the researchers predict that ion propulsion could be combined with more conventional combustion systems to create more fuel-efficient hybrid power for large aircraft.

And it all began in the gym of MIT’s duPont Athletic Center. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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