The Birds That Can Fly A Million Miles, Wings That Can Beat 80 Times A Second

Flying On An Ionic Wind

Back in 1928, the British Crown granted Thomas Townsend Brown a patent on an antigravity device that promised to revolutionize flight. His invention was based on the observation that a pair of highly charged wires can exert a physical force on their surroundings. Last year, it was finally put to use in a totally new kind of flying machine. Developed by engineers at MIT, the drone has no moving parts and is powered by batteries.

The force Brown observed is now known as an ionic wind. To generate it, a positively charged electrode strips the electrons from the air’s nitrogen atoms, leaving behind positively charged ions that are attracted to a negatively charged electrode a short distance behind. As the ions travel, they collide with air molecules, and these collisions collectively amount to a force propelling the electrodes forward.

To adapt ionic wind to flight, the MIT researchers mounted pairs of electrodes under the wings of a drone, where propellers normally go. Charging the wires to a shocking 40,000 volts, they generated enough thrust to fly their experimental plane across an MIT gymnasium.

Reaching meaningful distances with a significant payload will require more engineering, but the flight has already earned the drone comparisons to the Wright Flyer. Nearly silent and needing no gasoline, the ion drive airplane has the potential to offset some of the biggest environmental impacts of air transportation, revolutionizing flight in ways Brown could scarcely have imagined.

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