He developed the experimental plane with the Star Trek's shuttles that flew with no moving parts in their propulsion systems in his mind. Ion propulsion instead sends out charged particles or ions generated in the gap between two electrodes with a high voltage in-between.
"As they flow they collide with air molecules transferring momentum to them".
Ever since Orville and Wilbur Wright's momentous glide in the winter of 1903, aircraft have been driven by propellers or jets that must burn fuel to create the thrust and lift needed for sustained flight.
London-born Steven Barrett, Professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT in the United States, said: "This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler - and do not emit combustion emissions".
The aircraft, called Version 2 EAD Airframe, or V2, weighs only 5.4 pounds (2.45 kg) with a wingspan of 16-1/2 feet (5 meters). In this way, the batteries supply electricity at 40,000 volts to positively charge the wires via a lightweight power converter.
The craft generates thrust with a pair of wires carrying electric current, set one behind the other. Those neutral air molecules then stream out of the back of the plane, providing thrust.
A general blueprint for an MIT plane propelled by ionic wind. That was all the room they had to work with in the testing facility, but it's enough to generate significant hope for the basic design strategy.
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Barrett says the inspiration for the teams ion plane comes partly from the movie and television series, Star Trek, which he watched avidly as a kid.
"It's clearly very early days: but the team at MIT have done something we never previously knew was possible, in using accelerated ionised gas to propel an aircraft", said Guy Gratton, aerospace engineer and visiting professor at Cranfield University, who was not involved in the study. [Outside of drone applications], it is hard to infer how much it could influence aircraft propulsion in the future.
The team flew the plane a distance of 60 metres - the maximum distance within the building.
Ionic wind, also known as electroaerodynamic thrust, was first identified in the 1920s and explored by scientists and engineers in the U.S. and at Britain's Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in the 1960s, but they were only able to produce very low levels of thrust, insufficient for flight. You can often find these kinds of ionocraft projects at science fairs and aeronautic events. Barrett was a fan as a kid, and was particularly interested in the landing shuttles that appeared to move through space (or planetary atmosphere) with no apparent moving parts.
"In the long term, I'm hoping for ultra-efficient and almost silent airplanes that have no moving control surfaces like rudders or elevators, no moving propulsion system like propellers or turbines, and no direct combustion emissions like you get with burning jet fuel", added Barrett, who led the research published in the journal Nature.
Ideally, Prof Barrett would like to design an aircraft with no visible propulsion system or separate controls surfaces such as rudders and elevators. That produces a wind that provides thrust for the plane, Barrett explained.
He said: "This is the first time an aeroplane with no moving plants has flown". After one sleepless, jetlagged night in a hotel, Barrett said, he produced some drawings and concluded it might be a viable propulsion system.