Since the first aeroplane flight more than 100 years ago, aeroplanes have been propelled using moving surfaces such as propellers and turbines. Most have been powered by fossil-fuel combustion. Electroaerodynamics, in which electrical forces accelerate ions in a fluid1,2, has been proposed as an alternative method of propelling aeroplanes—without moving parts, nearly silently and without combustion emissions3,4,5,6. However, no aeroplane with such a solid-state propulsion system has yet flown. Here we demonstrate that a solid-state propulsion system can sustain powered flight, by designing and flying an electroaerodynamically propelled heavier-than-air aeroplane. We flew a fixed-wing aeroplane with a five-metre wingspan ten times and showed that it achieved steady-level flight. All batteries and power systems, including a specifically developed ultralight high-voltage (40-kilovolt) power converter, were carried on-board. We show that conventionally accepted limitations in thrust-to-power ratio and thrust density4,6,7, which were previously thought to make electroaerodynamics unfeasible as a method of aeroplane propulsion, are surmountable. 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.
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The work was also contributed to by many undergraduate students from 2010–2018 as part of MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), as part of MIT’s Minority Students Research Program (MSRP), or as part of MIT’s summer research exchange program with Imperial College London (IROP). These students include Y. K. Tey, P. Kandangwa, W. B. Rideout, J. Epps, S. O’Neill, M. Adams, J. M. Salinas, N. H. Rodman, I. L. LaJoie, W. A. Rutter, A. J. Sanders, N. J. Martorell, I. Vallina Garcia, J. P. Liguori, K. Dasadhikari, B. J. Scalzo Dees, M. H. Knowles, D. W. Fellows and D. P. Aaradhya. In addition, we thank A. Brown, T. Tao, C. Tan, P. Lozano, J. Peraire and C. Guerra-Garcia for technical discussions and advice, in some cases as part of student thesis committees. K. Masuyama, A. Dexter and J. Payton contributed to the project in its earlier phases. J. Leith and J. L. Freeman contributed to the financial and procurement administration for the project. F. Allroggen contributed to the resource management for the project. We also thank the laboratory staff at MIT AeroAstro for their help with the design, fabrication and flight testing of the EAD aircraft, in particular D. Robertson, T. Billings, A. Zolnik and T. Numan. Finally, we thank the MIT Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation for access to space for indoor flight testing, in particular S. Lett. This work was funded through MIT Lincoln Laboratory Autonomous Systems Line, the Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grant, and through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART). The work was also funded through the Charles Stark Draper and Leonardo career development chairs at MIT. This material is based on work supported by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering under Air Force Contract No. FA8721-05-C-0002 and/or FA8702-15-D-0001. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.
Nature thanks D. Drew, K. Pister, F. Plouraboué and H. Smith for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
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