"The future of flight shouldn't be things with propellors and turbines and should be more like what you see in Star Trek", Professor Steven Barrett, of the MA...
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".
Researchers have demonstrated a design for an aircraft that could fly on its own power without any need for moving parts, potentially changing flight forever.
Barret admitted he was inspired by the Star Trek TV series he watched when he was a kid.
He was especially impressed by the show's futuristic shuttle crafts that skimmed through the air producing hardly any noise or exhaust.
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. "They should be more like the shuttles in 'Star Trek,' that have just a blue glow and silently glide".
The team was limited by the length of their testing room, but the demonstration was enough as a proof of concept that ionic drive can sustain flight significantly longer than is possible with just gliding.
MIT engineers create silent, futuristic aircraft powered by ionic wind
The teams final design resembles a large, lightweight glider. It has a number of thin electrodes running across its wings, and at the front of these are thin wires, while at the back is an aerofoil - a curved surface to produce the lift, like on a regular plane wing.
According to The Telegraph, the plane looks like something out of Star Trek and runs on batteries. These are connected to a stack of lithium-ion batteries housed in the aircraft fuselage, which in turn is connected to a lightweight power converter that supplies 40,000 V to the wires.
The air molecules that are left behind are newly ionised, and are in turn attracted to the negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane. Once energised, the propulsion system begins, colliding ions millions of times over with other air molecules, resulting in thrust.
Ionic technologies have always been a staple of sci-fi movies.
The basic principle of ion propulsion was first discovered in the 1920s, and it's been a popular area for flight hobbyists who create ultralight model aircraft wired to a voltage source.
Barrett and the team noted a pleasing parallel with their revolutionary test and the one that sparked the aerial age: both flights lasted all of 12 seconds. It's still some way away from an aircraft that could perform the useful mission.
The main challenge facing the team now is designing a smaller battery which can produce more ionic winds with a lesser voltage. "The nearest term application would be for fixed-wing drones that have wing spans of a few metres to perhaps 20 metres", Barrett said. Ionic wind propulsion systems could be used to create drones that are completely silent, and therefore far less annoying to the people they buzz and swoop over.
It took a long time to get here, Barrett says. "Now the possibilities for this kind of propulsion system are viable", concluded Barrett.
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