NASA invests in a silent, solid-state drone flight system

An illustration of the solid state silent aircraft in flight.


NASA is investing in a new type of aircraft: an aircraft that operates with a propulsion system with no moving parts.

The space agency funds research into futuristic, experimental and emerging technologies through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. The latest round of NIAC fellows, announced last month, includes MIT aerospace engineering professor Steven Barrett, who has worked on a solid-state silent flight system for years.

Barrett and the MIT Electric Aircraft Initiative published an article on the technology in the journal Nature in 2018. Rather than rotors or propellers, they developed a small aircraft with a series of electrodes under the wings creating a high-power electric field. voltage that ionizes and then accelerates nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere to propel the aircraft forward. You can see it in action, with a more detailed explanation from Barrett, in the video below.

“It’s still a long way from an aircraft that could perform a useful mission,” Barrett said in a statement at the time. “It needs to be more efficient, fly longer and fly outdoors.”

The so-called electro-aerodynamic propulsion system is limited in terms of altitude and the size of aircraft it can support, leading Barrett to believe it may be best used for small electric vertical takeoffs and landings, or VTOL, aircraft operations in urban areas.

“The aircraft would enable package delivery missions in noise-sensitive areas or at night, where operations would otherwise not be permitted due to community opposition,” reads the NIAC project summary. Barrett.

Imagine a drone gliding to your doorstep with ninja-like stealth to drop off a package rather than the irritating whirr of drone rotors.

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So why is NASA interested in silent, urban delivery drone technology? Well, the space agency also works in aeronautics here on Earth, but it may have its eyes on more distant destinations after fly your own little helicopter on Mars. Solid-state technology with no moving parts is always an attractive advantage for space missions, where repairing worn components is often impossible.

And it turns out that Barrett himself was inspired by space science fiction.

“In the long-term future, airplanes shouldn’t have propellers or turbines,” he said in 2018. “They should be more like Star Trek shuttles, which only have a glow blue and glide silently.”

Barrett’s team will receive $175,000 in NIAC Phase One funding to develop the technology over a nine-month period.

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