'Ionic wind' plane offers glimpse of future flight

posted by Jonathan Owen
23 November 2018

In the space of 24 hours two milestones have been reached in advanced technologies that signal a transformation in the movement of goods in years to come.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced £25m in funding for the first UK trials where passengers will be taken on driverless vehicles.

The trials, set to take place by 2021, will include an autonomous bus service along the Forth Bridge from Fife to Edinburgh, self-driving taxis in Greenwich, London, and a mobility service using six autonomous Land Rover Discovery vehicles in several London boroughs.

The three projects were selected following a competitive process and will share a £25m government grant through the fourth round of the Connected and Autonomous Vehicles Intelligent Mobility Fund.

Greg Clark, business and energy secretary, said: “Self-driving cars will revolutionise the way we move goods and people around the UK.”

He commented that the government’s ambition is to have autonomous vehicles on Britain’s roads by 2021.

Jesse Norman, future of mobility minister, said: “Automated driving technology is advancing rapidly, and the UK market for connected and autonomous vehicles is forecast to be worth up to £52 billion by 2035.”

He added: “This pioneering technology will bring significant benefits to people right across the country, improving mobility and safety, and driving growth across the UK.”

This comes after the announcement by US researchers that the first flight tests had been carried out of an electric aircraft that has no moving parts.

The five meter wingspan glider-like plane has no propellers, turbines or any other moving parts and an ‘ionic wind’ of colliding electrically charged air molecules provides the thrust needed to make it fly.

A high-voltage current passed through an array of wires beneath the front end of its wings removes negatively charged electrons from surrounding air molecules, resulting in a cloud of positively charged ionised air molecules that are attracted to another set of negatively charged wires at the back of the plane.

As they flow towards the negative charge, the ions collide millions of times with other air molecules, creating the thrust that pushes the aircraft forward.

In the tests, the battery-powered unmanned aircraft, that weighs 5lbs, managed sustained flights of 60 meters at an average height of 0.47 metres. 

Its inventors believe that the ion wind propulsion technology could one day be integrated with conventional propulsion systems to produce highly fuel-efficient hybrid passenger planes.

Lead researcher Dr Steven Barrett, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system. This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions.”

He added: “It took a long time to get here. Going from the basic principle to something that actually flies was a long journey of characterising the physics, then coming up with the design and making it work. Now the possibilities for this kind of propulsion system are viable.”

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