When I was a child I remember seeing advertisements for antigravity and UFO kits available via mail order. Advertised in the back of magazines these kits captured the imagination of many people for years. A simple search of YouTube will turn up dozens of examples of these types of devices in spooky action. With nothing more than the application of some electricity they will leap from the ground and sail through the air.
While these kits were advertised and sold as antigravity technology, they were in fact nothing more than Ionic Wind devices. While the promises may have been misleading the science behind them is quite solid and has been around for many decades. This week scientists at MIT jumped on the antigravity bandwagon by demonstrating an aircraft based on this very technology. Just like the mail order antigravity kits their aircraft uses Ionic Wind technology to provide thrust, technology with no moving parts that is reliant on electricity alone to provide thrust.
An Ionic Wind engine uses high voltage electricity to electrify (ionise) the nitrogen in the surrounding air at the leading edge of the wing, this electrified air is then drawn towards the back of the wing by another strip of electrodes.
The breakthrough for the MIT team has been in cutting the power cord. Until now Ionic Wind engines have relied on a cable to provide the high voltage power. Instead of relying on a tethered power supply the MIT team have developed a new light power supply able to generate high voltages while being very light weight.
While It may be some time before ions replace propellers there are some advantages and interesting by-products to this type of propulsion. Even in this basic configuration the aircraft is silent, and the lack of moving parts could make it more reliable in the future. Also, the ionisation process causes changes to the drag profile of the wing which is being studied by many aircraft designers and may lead to more efficient conventional aircraft.