The first-of-its-kind-flight was made possible thanks to a process known as electroaerodynamic propulsion. While the small aircraft is indeed novel, the principals behind its ability to fly has been known since the early months of John F. Kennedy's administration.
In the May, 1961 edition of the Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Part I: Communication and Electronics researcher Myron Robinson of Cottrell, Inc., explained that by using electricity, a corona discharge would take place creating velocity and explained its physics.
"Gas velocity is a linear function of voltage and is proportional to the square root of current; if the density of the gas is not too low, the efficiency of electrokinetic conversion near sparkover is proportional to the square root of the density, and the velocity at constant current is independent of the density; near sparkover efficiency is independent of voltage; velocity increases slowly as additional blowers are stacked in series; the ozone concentration of blower air resulting from the corona discharge is an increasing function of electric-wind velocity," Robinson wrote in the paper's abstract
Unlike traditional heavier-than-air machines, the MIT airplane accomplished flight without any moving parts, and flew nearly silently and with no emissions. Flight was made possible by using high voltages - for this machine, 40,000 volts - by generating ions in the air around two electrodes and passing the ions between them. When the ions collide with the regular air between them, ionic wind is created, and the plane is thrust forward
"We provide a proof of concept for electroaerodynamic aeroplane propulsion, opening up possibilities for aircraft and aerodynamic devices that are quieter, mechanically simpler and do not emit combustion emissions," the MIT researchers wrote in their abstract.
While the small airplane had no cargo, and definitely no passengers, researchers noted the technology could impact everything from small drones carrying relatively light payloads to commercial flight by helping reduce drag.
“Although it is still a long way off from commercial gas turbine propulsion … electroaerodynamic propulsion has the potential to be a game-changer for short-range, small-payload drone flights,” says Priyanka Dhopade, a researcher at the Oxford Thermofluids Institute.
“We’ve only had a few years to develop this technology,” said MIT's Steven Barrett. “Conventional propulsion has had 100 years, so we have some catching up to do. But I think we can.”
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