MIT

An electric plane with no moving parts has made its first flight

It's the same technology as your bladeless desk fan

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An electric airplane with no moving parts has made its first flight, paving the way for a future of low-emission, near-silent aircraft taking to the skies.

Built by a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the plane propelled itself 60 feet (200 meters) during an in-door test flight.

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Weighing just 5.4 pounds (2.45 kg), the aircraft is unable to carry any cargo or passengers, but it represents an important step towards a quieter and more sustainable future for aviation.

The plane uses a technology called electroaerodynamic propulsion, which is the same tech used by bladeless fans for cooling your home or office. There are no propellers and no moving parts; the system uses pure electricity to move the surrounding air to propel the aircraft forwards.

The technology behind how this works has been around since the 1960s, but is yet to be used for flight - hardly surprising, given the amount of energy and the high voltage required.

As explained by MIT's Technology Review website: "Using very high voltages - in the plane's case, 40,000 volts - the thruster generates ions in the are around two electrodes. The electric field created between these throws the ions from a smaller electrode over to a larger one. These ions collide with normal air molecules while traveling, creating the ionic wind and pushing the plane forwards."

The test flight was performed in a school gym and lasted just 12 seconds, so clearly there is still a long way to go before the technology can be used to carry cargo or passengers.

But if the technology can be improved upon, electroaerodynamic propulsion could be the golden ticket for so-called 'flying taxis', the electric, autonomous vehicles currently in development by companies like Uber.

Their goal is to offer an on-demand transportation service where passengers are flown over the gridlocked roads of major cities, but the noise of current plane and helicopter technology means city-center flights can be disruptive. The near-silent technology demonstrated by MIT could change this.

Published on Nature, a paper written by the researchers states: "We show that conventionally accepted limitations in thrust-to-power ratio and thrust density, which were previously thought to make electroaerodynamics unfeasible as a method of aeroplane propulsion, are surmountable. We provide a proof of concept for electroaerodynamic devices that are quieter, mechanically simpler and do not emit combustion emissions."

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