In a development that renders science fiction into scientific fact, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) employed ionic wind thrusters to power an unmanned aircraft almost 60 metres at a speed of 17 km/h.

Although the concept of ionic thrust has existed for a number of years, and is already used to propel spacecraft, this is the first time it has been applied to power an aircraft. Steven Barrett, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and the aerospace engineer who piloted the project, spent eight years studying the technology before attempting to build a miniature prototype. His second attempt, which he calls simply ‘Version 2’, has a five-metre wingspan. Although he thought it had a 50/50 chance of succeeding, one of his colleagues at MIT gave it just a one percent chance.

Simply put, the aircraft’s ionic thrusters generate thrust by using 40,000 volts of electricity conducted along a metal strand across the front of the aircraft to cause electrons to escape from nitrogen atoms that are present in the air. The nitrogen atoms then become positively charged ions and race towards negatively charged electrodes at the back of the plane. The fast-moving ions also carry along air molecules, which creates the wind that pushes the plane forward and allowing it to fly.

“This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system,” says Barrett. “This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler and do not emit combustion emissions.”

Barrett says he was inspired by the TV and movie series Star Trek, which he regularly watched as a child. He said he was particularly drawn to the futuristic shuttlecrafts that effortlessly skimmed through the air, with seemingly no moving parts and hardly any noise or exhaust.