Forget Regular eVTOLs, NASA Backs Stealthy Delivery Drones With No Moving Parts

The futuristic MIT motorless aircraft is powered by ionic wind 6 photos
Photo: Christine Y. He/MIT
MIT "Ion Drive" AircraftMIT "Ion Drive" AircraftMIT "Ion Drive" AircraftMIT "Ion Drive" AircraftMIT "Ion Drive" Aircraft
Back in 2018, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) marked a premiere in aviation. They successfully flew a plane without any moving parts for the first time. Granted, it was a small aircraft flying in a sports hall, but it was a milestone for a daring project that is now being backed by NASA.
In the not-so-distant future, noisy drones could be a thing of the past. Drone deliveries are rapidly growing in popularity, but something even more spectacular is just around the corner – stealthy drones that would glide instead of flying, delivering packages at night, anywhere across cities, in perfect silence. MIT aerospace engineering professor Steven Barrett believes that airplanes should be more like spacecraft, and that propellers and turbines don’t belong in the future.

The innovative contraption he developed in 2018, together with the MIT Electric Aircraft Initiative, is not just a futuristic prototype but one that could lead to the development of silent drones. That’s because Barrett recently became one of the fellows of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. His team was awarded $175,000 for advancing this technology over the next nine months, CNET reports. The space agency is known to also be interested in innovative aviation technology, so it’s not surprising that it’s decided to fund Barrett’s concept.

Instead of moving parts, silent drones would be powered by an “ion drive” that accelerates air particles, resulting in an “ionic wind” that helps the aircraft glide. The demonstrator flown in 2018 was equipped with several electrodes located beneath the wings, which create a high-voltage electric field. This ionizes and accelerates nitrogen particles, and the result is an “ionic wind” that propels the aircraft forward.

The main disadvantage of this “electro-aerodynamic propulsion system” is that it can’t be used for large aircraft or at high altitudes. At least not yet, which is why Barrett presented it as a solution for small eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landings) that would be able to conduct deliveries in noise-sensitive areas or at night. But this recent NIAC funding could be just a step towards even greater progress for this trailblazing concept.

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About the author: Otilia Drăgan
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Otilia believes that if it’s eco, green, or groundbreaking, people should know about it (especially if it's got wheels or wings). Working in online media for over five years, she's gained a deeper perspective on how people everywhere can inspire each other.
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