Plane with no Moving Parts

Plane with no Moving Parts

MIT engineers have built and flown the first-ever plane with no moving parts. Instead of propellers or turbines, the light aircraft is powered by an “ionic wind” — a silent but mighty flow of ions that is produced aboard the plane, and that generates enough thrust to propel the plane over a sustained, steady flight. Since the first airplane took flight over 100 years ago, virtually every aircraft in the sky has flown with the help of moving parts such as propellers, turbine blades, or fans that produce a persistent, whining buzz. We may be seeing the beginning of the end of that.

Unlike turbine-powered planes, the aircraft does not depend on fossil fuels to fly. And unlike propeller-driven drones, the new design is completely silent.

“This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system,” says Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions.”

He expects that in the near-term, such ion wind propulsion systems could be used to fly less noisy drones. Further out, he envisions ion propulsion paired with more conventional combustion systems to create more fuel-efficient, hybrid passenger planes and other large aircraft.

Barrett and his team at MIT have published their results today in the journal Nature.

Hobby crafts

Barrett says the inspiration for the team’s ion plane comes partly from the movie and television series, “Star Trek,” which he watched avidly as a kid. He was particularly drawn to the futuristic shuttle crafts that effortlessly skimmed through the air, with seemingly no moving parts and hardly any noise or exhaust.

“This made me think, in the long-term future, planes shouldn’t have propellers and turbines,” Barrett says. “They should be more like the shuttles in ‘Star Trek,’ that have just a blue glow and silently glide.”

About nine years ago, Barrett started looking for ways to design a propulsion system for planes with no moving parts. He eventually came upon “ionic wind,” also known as electroa-erodynamic thrust — a physical principle that was first identified in the 1920s and describes a wind, or thrust, that can be produced when a current is passed between a thin and a thick electrode. If enough voltage is applied, the air in between the electrodes can produce enough thrust to propel a small aircraft.

For years, electro-aerodynamic thrust has mostly been a hobbyist’s project, and designs have for the most part been limited to small, desktop “lifters” tethered to large voltage supplies that create just enough wind for a small craft to hover briefly in the air. It was largely assumed that it would be impossible to produce enough ionic wind to propel a larger aircraft over a sustained flight.

“It was a sleepless night in a hotel when I was jet-lagged, and I was thinking about this and started searching for ways it could be done,” he recalls. “I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that, yes, it might become a viable propulsion system,” Barrett says. “And it turned out it needed many years of work to get from that to a first test flight.”

Updated: November 29, 2018 — 2:46 PM


  1. While the video looks impressive, it appears the aircraft has a very high glide ratio. Extremely light and large wingspan contributes to long glides especially when launched from a catapult system. Still interesting technology.

  2. This would make a great flying mosquito zapper!

  3. Watt were the test results with out the engine on and then with it on??????

  4. In the 1980s my son won a high school science fair with a project demonstrating ionic air flow control instead of moving control surfaces for airplanes. One afternoon he phoned me at work and excitedly described the “cool blue swirling” on the ping pong table. His test apparatus was a wind tunnel system which had a water damping device to cancel vibrations. He bumped the table and water slashed out and the 20,000 volts became quite visual. I told him 1….unplug the transformer….and 2…don’t tell your mother.

    1. I think, as a Ham since age 12, and electronics experimenter from the age of tube state electronics to today, we have all experienced a similar moment, and hopefully the same wise counsel!

  5. The first ion propelled aircraft in history to carry its power supply, has been patented since 2014. It is still the only one that can both take off and fly using only ions. It has a roughly 20 times higher power to weight ratio. It can fly VTOL or sideways using the collectors as wings. Here is a video of it flying for almost 2 minutes, with links to other information as well: (Also, scaling up has little to do with it.)

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