Tag Archives: Festo

Festo’s SmartBird and BionicSwift – A Decade of Progress in Deciphering How Birds Fly

Peter Lobner

1. Background on Festo

Festo is a German multinational industrial control and automation company based in Esslingen am Neckar, near Stuttgart. The Festo website is here: https://www.festo.com/group/en/cms/10054.htm

Festo reports that they invest about 8% of their revenues in research and development.  Festo’s draws inspiration for some of its control and automation technology products from the natural world. To help facilitate this, Festo established the Bionic Learning Network, which is a research network linking Festo to universities, institutes, development companies and private inventors.  A key goal of this network is to learn from nature and develop “new insights for technology and industrial applications”…. “in various fields, from safe automation and intelligent mechatronic solutions up to new drive and handling technologies, energy efficiency and lightweight construction.”

One of the challenges taken on by the Bionic Learning Network was to decipher how birds fly and then develop robotic devices that can implement that knowledge and fly like a bird. Their first product was the 2011 SmartBird and their newest product is the 2020 BionicSwift.  In this article we’ll take a look at these two bionic birds and the significant advancements that Festo has made in just nine years.

2. SmartBird

On 24 March 2011, Festo issued a press release introducing their SmartBird flying bionic robot, which was one of their 2011 Bionic Learning Network projects. Festo reported:

  • “The research team from the family enterprise Festo has now, in 2011, succeeded in unraveling the mystery of bird flight. The key to its understanding is a unique movement that distinguishes SmartBird from all previous mechanical flapping wing constructions and allows the ultra-lightweight, powerful flight model to take off, fly and land autonomously.”
  • “SmartBird flies, glides and sails through the air just like its natural model – the Herring Gull – with no additional drive mechanism. Its wings not only beat up and down, but also twist at specific angles. This is made possible by an active articulated torsional drive unit, which in combination with a complex control system makes for unprecedented efficiency in flight operation. Festo has thus succeeded for the first time in attaining an energy-efficient technical adaptation of this model from nature.”

SmartBird measures 1.07 meters (42 in) long with a wingspan of 2.0 meters (79 in) and a weigh of 450 grams (16 ounces, 1 pound).  This is about a 1.6X scale-up in the length and span of an actual Herring Gull, but at about one-third the weight. It is capable of autonomous takeoff, flight, and landing using just its wings, and it controls itself the same way birds do, by twisting its body, wings, and tail.  SmartBird’s propulsion system has a power requirement of 23 watts.

Source:  All three SmartBird photos from Festo

More information on SmartBird is on the Festo website here:  https://www.festo.com/group/en/cms/10238.htm

You can watch a 2011 Festo video, “Festo – SmartBird,” (1:47 minutes) on YouTube here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnR8fDW3Ilo

3. Bionic Swift

On 1 July 2020, Festo introduced the BionicSwift as their latest ultra light flying bionic robot that mimics how actual birds fly. 

The BionicSwift, inspired by a Common Swift, measures 44.5 cm (17.5 in) long with a wingspan of 68 cm (26.7 in) and a weight of just 42 grams (1.5 ounces). It’s approximately a 2X scale-up of a Common Swift, but still a remarkably compact, yet complex flying machine with aerodynamic plumage that closely replicates the flight feathers on an actual Swift.  The 2011 SmartBird was more than twice the physical size and ten times heavier.

The BionicSwift is agile, nimble and can even fly loops and tight turns.  Festo reports: “Due to this close-to-nature replica of the wings, the BionicSwifts have a better flight profile than previous wing-beating drives.”  Compare the complex, feathered wing structure in the following Festo photos of the BionicSwift with the previous photos showing the simpler, solid wing structure of the 2011 SmartBird.

Source:  All three BionicSwift photos from Festo

A BionicSwift can fly singly or in coordinated flight with a group of other BionicSwifts.  Festo describes how this works: “Radio-based indoor GPS with ultra wideband technology (UWB) enables the coordinated and safe flying of the BionicSwifts. For this purpose, several radio modules are installed in one room. These anchors then locate each other and define the controlled airspace. Each robotic bird is also equipped with a radio marker. This sends signals to the anchors, which can then locate the exact position of the bird and send the collected data to a central master computer, which acts as a navigation system.”  Flying time is about seven minutes per battery charge.

More information on the Bionic Swift is on the Festo website here:  https://www.festo.com/group/en/cms/13787.htm

You also can watch a 2020 Festo video, “Festo – BionicSwift,” (1:45 minutes) on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8fgc77dwwg

4. For more information about other Festo bionic creations: 

I encourage you to visit the Festo BionIc Learning Network webpage at the following link and browse the resources available for the many intriguing projects. https://www.festo.com/group/en/cms/10156.htm

On this webpage you’ll find a series of links listed under the heading  “More Projects,” which will introduce you to the wide range of Bionic Learning Network projects since 2006.

You also can watch the following YouTube short videos of Festo’s many bionic creations:

Modern Airships – Part 2

Peter Lobner, Updated 3 April 2021

1. Introduction

Modern Airships is a three-part document that contains an overview of modern airship technology in Part 1 and links in Parts 1, 2 and 3 to more than 130 individual articles on historic and advanced airship designs.  This is Part 2.  Here are the links to the other two parts:

You’ll find a consolidated Table of Contents for all three parts at the following link.  This should help you navigate the large volume of material in the three documents.

Modern Airships – Part 2 begins with a summary graphic table identifying the airships addressed in this part, and concludes by providing links to 64 individual articles on those airships. A downloadable copy of Part 2 is available here:

If you have any comments or wish to identify errors in these documents, please send me an e-mail to:  PL31416@cox.net.

I hope you’ll find the Modern Airships series to be informative, useful, and different from any other single document on this subject.

Best regards,

Peter Lobner

 April 2021

2. Specific airships in Part 2

The airships reviewed in Modern Airships – Part 2 are summarized in the following set of graphic tables that are organized into the 11 categories listed below: 

  • Conventional, rigid and semi-rigid airships
  • Conventional, non-rigid airships (blimps)
  • Hybrid (semi-buoyant) airships
  • Hybrid thermal (Rozier) airships
  • Variable buoyancy, fixed volume airships
  • Variable buoyancy, variable volume airships
  • Variable buoyancy propelled airships
  • Stratospheric airships
  • Semi-buoyant plane / airship hybrids
  • Electro-kinetically (EK) propelled airships
  • Small LTA drones

Within each category, each page of the table is titled with the name of the category and is numbered (P2.x), where P2 = Modern Airships – Part 2 and x = the sequential number of the page in that category.  For example, “Stratospheric airships (P2.2)” is the page title for the second page in the “Stratospheric airships” category in Part 2.  There also are stratospheric airships addressed in Modern Airships – Parts 1 and 3.

Links to the individual Part 2 articles on these airships are provided in Section 3.  Some individual articles cover more than one particular airship.

Among the airships included in the above tables, more than 35 have flown.

Several airships that have not yet flown have well-established designs and their manufacturers seem to be poised to start building their full-scale prototype(s) and engaging aviation regulatory authorities in the long process leading to a type certificate for their production airships.  Several manufacturers have received orders that are conditional on having a type certificate.  Almost all are limited by a lack of funding to get from Point A (today) to Point B (having a type certificate).

The most promising new heavy-lift airship manufacturers identified in Part 2 are:

  • Flying Whales (France): The firm appears to have solid funding from diverse sources in France, China, Canada and Morocco, which should be adequate to fund the construction and flight testing of a prototype LCA60T airship.  Full-scale production facilities are planned in France, China and Canada and commercial airship operating infrastructure is being planned. In 2019, the LCA60T prototype maiden flight was expected to take place in 2021.  That date has slipped to 2024.
  • Varialift (UK):  The factory in France and the ARH-PT prototype are under construction, but the schedule for completing the prototype has slipped, perhaps by three years to 2022, primarily because of tenuous funding. Without a stronger funding stream, the future schedule is unpredictable.
  • Euro Airship (France): The firm claims that production-ready drawings exist for their Corsair and the larger DGPAtt.  When funding becomes available, it seems that they’re ready to go.
  • BASI (Canada): The firm has a well developed design in the MB-30T and a fixed-base operating infrastructure design that seems to be well suited for their primary market in the Arctic. When funding becomes available, it seems that they’re ready to go.
  • Millennium Airship (USA & Canada): The firm has well developed designs for their SF20T and SF50T SkyFreighters, has identified its industrial team for manufacturing, and has a business arrangement with SkyFreighter Canada, Ltd., which would become a future operator of SkyFreighter airships in Canada.  In addition, a development plan defines the work needed to build and certify a prototype and a larger production airship. When funding becomes available, it seems that they’re ready to go.
  • Aerosmena (AIDBA, Russia): The firm offers the latest designs for heavy-lift hybrid thermal (Rozier) “aeroplatforms,” which use two lift gases: helium and heated air.  The A20 will be the prototype for the entire family of Aerosmena aeroplatform. When funding becomes available, it seems that they’re ready to go.
  • Atlas LTA Advanced Technology (Israel): After acquiring the Russian firm Augur RosAeroSystems in 2018, Atlas is continuing to develop the ATLANT variable buoyancy, fixed volume heavy lift airship.  They also are developing a new family of non-rigid manned and unmanned blimps.  However, the development plans and schedules have not yet been made public.

These heavy-lift airships will be competing in the worldwide airship market with the leading candidates identified in Modern Airships – Part 1, which could enter the market in the same time frame if they get adequate funding:

  • Lockheed Martin (USA): LMH-1 hybrid airship
  • Hybrid Air Vehicles (UK): Airlander 10 hybrid airship
  • Aeros (USA): Aeroscraft ML866 / Aeroscraft Gen 2 variable buoyancy / fixed volume airship
  • Voliris (France): V932 NATAC & SeaBird semi-buoyant, inflated wing airships

For decades, there have been many ambitious projects that intended to operate an airship as a pseudo-satellite, carrying a heavy payload while maintaining a geo-stationary position in the stratosphere on a long-duration mission (days, weeks, to a year or more).  None were successful.  This led NASA in 2014 to plan the 20-20-20 airship challenge: 20 km altitude, 20 hour flight, 20 kg payload.  The challenge never occurred, but it highlighted the difficulty of developing an airship as a persistent pseudo-satellite.  The most promising new stratospheric airship manufacturers identified in Part 2 are:

  • Sceye Inc. (USA):  This small firm is developing and, since 2017, has been flight testing mid-size, multi-mission stratospheric airships. The firm also is building a new headquarters and manufacturing facility in New Mexico. Plans for stratospheric communications system flight tests in 2021 have been filed with the Federal Communications Commission. 
  • Thales Alenia Space (France): The firm is developing the multi-mission Stratobus.  Their latest round of funding from France’s defense procurement agency calls for a full-scale, autonomous Stratobus demonstrator airship to fly by the end of 2023, five years later than another demonstrator that was ordered in the original 2016 Stratobus contract, but not built.

China remains an outlier after the 2015 flight of the Yuanmeng stratospheric airship developed by         Beijing Aerospace Technology Co. & BeiHang.  The current status of the Chinese stratospheric airship development program is not described in public documents.

Among the many smaller airships identified in Part 2, the following manufacturers could have their airships flying in the early-to-mid 2020s if adequate funding becomes available.

  • Dirisolar (France): The firm has a well developed design for their five passenger DS 1500, which is intended initially for local air tourism, but can be configured for other missions.  When funding becomes available, it seems that they’re ready to go.
  • A-NSE (France):  The firm offers a range of aerostat and small airships, several with a novel tri-lobe, variable volume hull design.  Such aerostats are operational now, and a tri-lobe airship could be flying in the early 2020s.
  • Egan Airships (USA):  The PLIMP Model J drone has already flown and the Model J plane / blimp hybrid is the likely candidate for FAA type certification. When funding becomes available, it seems that they’re ready to go.
  • Solar Ship (Canada): The firm’s 24-meter Caracal semi-buoyant, inflated wing airship has already flown successfully.  However, that basic design did not scale up successfully. Hence, the larger Wolverine has been redesigned as a significantly different semi-buoyant aircraft.  Solar Ship has not described their current development and certification schedules.

There seems to be a proliferation of small LTA drone blimps and other small LTA drone vehicles.  Some were developed initially for military surveillance applications, but all are configurable and could be deployed in a range of interesting applications. 

The 2020s will be an exciting time for the airship industry.  We’ll finally get to see if the availability of several different heavy-lift airships with commercial type certificates will be enough to open a new era in airship transportation. Aviation regulatory agencies need to help reduce investment risk by reducing regulatory uncertainty and putting in place an adequate regulatory framework for the wide variety of advanced airships being developed.  Customers with business cases for airship applications need to step up, place firm orders, and then begin the pioneering task of employing their airships and building a worldwide airship transportation network with associated ground infrastructure.  This will require consistent investment over the next decade or more before a basic worldwide airship transportation network is in place to support the significant use of commercial airships in cargo and passenger transportation and other applications. Perhaps then we’ll start seeing the benefits of airships as a lower environmental impact mode of transportation and a realistic alternative to fixed-wing aircraft, seaborne cargo vessels and heavy, long-haul trucks.

3. Links to the individual articles

The following links will take you to 64 individual articles that address all of the airships identified in the preceding graphic table.

Conventional, rigid and semi-rigid airships:

Conventional, non-rigid airships (blimps):

Hybrid (semi-buoyant) airships:

Hybrid thermal (Rozier) airships:

Variable buoyancy, fixed volume airships:

Variable buoyancy, variable volume airships:

Variable buoyancy propulsion airships:

Stratospheric airships:

Semi-buoyant plane / airship hybrids:

Electro-kinetically (EK) propelled airships:

Small LTA drones:

Riding the Phantom Zephyr

Peter Lobner, updated 21 February 2021

1.  Background

When charged molecules in the air are subjected to an electric field, they are accelerated. When these charged molecules collide with neutral ones, they transfer part of their momentum, leading to air movement known as an “ionic wind.”  This basic process is shown in the following diagram, which depicts a strong electric field between a discharge electrode (left) and a ground electrode (right), and the motion of negative ions toward the ground electrode where they are collected.  The neutral molecules pass through the ground electrode and generate the thrust called the ionic wind.

This post summarizes work that has been done to develop ionic wind propulsion systems for aircraft.  The particular projects summarized are the following:

  • Major Alexander de Seversky’s Ionocraft vertical lifter (1964)
  • Michael Walden / LTAS lighter-than-air XEM-1 (1977)
  • Michael Walden / LTAS lighter-than-air EK-1 (2003)
  • The Festo b-IONIC Airfish airship (2005)
  • NASA ionic wind study (2009)
  • The MIT electroaerodynamic (EAD) heaver-than-air, fixed wing aircraft (2018)

In addition, we’ll take a look at recent ionic propulsion work being done by Electrofluidsystems Ltd., Electron Air LLC and the University of Florida’s Applied Physics Research Group.

2.  Scale model of ion-propelled Ionocraft vertical takeoff lifter flew in 1964

Major Alexander de Seversky developed the design concept for a novel aircraft concept called the “Ionocraft,” which was capable of hovering or moving in any direction at high altitudes by means of ionic discharge. His design for the Ionocraft is described in US Patent 3,130,945, “Ionocraft,” dated 28 April 1964.  You can read this patent here: https://patents.google.com/patent/US3130945A/en

The operating principle of de Seversky’s Ionocraft propulsion system is depicted in the following graphic.

Ion propulsion scheme implemented in the de Seversky Ionocraft. 
Source: Popular Mechanics, August 1964

In 1964, de Seversky built a two-ounce (57 gram) Ionocraft scale model and demonstrated its ability to fly while powered from an external 90 watt power conversion system (30,000 volts at 3 mA), significantly higher that conventional aircraft and helicopters.  This translated into a power-to-weight ratio of about 0.96 hp/pound.  You can watch a short 1964 video of a scale model Ionocraft test flight here: 

Screenshot showing Ionocraft scale model in flight
Screenshot showing ionic wind downdraft under an Ionocraft scale model in flight

De Seversky’s Ionocraft and its test program are described in an article in the August 1964 Popular Mechanics magazine, which is available at the following link:  https://books.google.com/books?id=ROMDAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Alexander de Seversky’s one-man Ionocraft concept.
Source: Popular Mechanics Archive, August 1964
Alexander de Seversky’s Ionocraft commuter concept.
Source: Popular Mechanics Archive, August 1964
1969 Soviet concepts for passenger carrying Ionocraft.
Technology for Youth magazine, 1969, Issue 7.

In the 1960s, engineers found that Ionocraft technology did not scale up well and they were unable to build a vehicle that could generate enough lift to carry the equipment needed to produce the electricity needed to drive it.

3.  The first free-flying, ion-propelled, lighter-than-air craft flew in 1977:  Michael Walden / LTAS XEM-1

The subscale XEM-1 proof-of-concept demonstrator was designed by Michael Walden and built in 1974 by his firm, Lighter Than Air Solar (LTAS) in Nevada.  After leaving LTAS in 2005, Michael Walden founded Walden Aerospace where he is the President and CTO, building on the creative legacy of his work with the former LTAS firms.  The Walden Aerospace website is here: http://walden-aerospace.com/HOME.html 

The basic configuration of this small airship is shown in the following photo.  The MK-1 ionic airflow (IAF) hybrid EK drives are mounted on the sides of the airship’s rigid hull.

Source: Walden Aerospace.
Basic configuration of the MK-1 ionic airflow (IAF)
hybrid EK drive. Source: Walden Aerospace.

XEM-1 originally was tethered by cable to an external control unit and later was modified for wireless remote control operation. In this latter configuration, XEM-1 demonstrated the use of a hybrid EK propulsion system in a self-powered, free-flying vehicle.  

Walden described the MK-1 IAF EK drive as follows:  “The duct included a 10 inch ‘bent tip’ 3-bladed prop running on an electric motor to create higher pressures through the duct, making it a ‘modified pressure lifter’…. The duct also had a circular wire emitter, a dielectric separator and a toroidal collector making it a ‘toroid lifter’.”

The later MK-2 and MK-3 IAF EK drives had a similar duct configuration.  In all of these EK drives, the flow of ions from emitter to collector imparts momentum to neutral air molecules, creating usable thrust for propulsion.  You’ll find more information on the MK-1 IAF EK drive and later versions on the Walden Aerospace website here:  http://walden-aerospace.com/Waldens_Patents_files/Walden%20Aerospace%20Advanced%20Technologies%2011092013-2.pdf

The XEM-1 was demonstrated to the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Energy (DOE) in 1977 at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.  Walden reported:  “We flew the first fully solar powered rigid airship in 1974, followed by a US Department of Defense and Department of Energy flight demonstration in August 1977”…. “ DoD was interested in this work to the extent that some of it is still classified despite requests for the information to become freely available.”

Walden credits the XEM-1 with being the first fully self-contained air vehicle to fly with a hybrid ionic airflow electro-kinetic propulsion system. This small airship also demonstrated the feasibility of a rigid, composite, monocoque aeroshell, which became a common feature on many later Walden / LTAS airships.

4.  The second free-flying, ion-propelled, lighter-than-air craft flew in 2003:  Michael Walden / LTAS EK-1

Michael Walden designed the next-generation EK-1, which was a remotely controlled, self-powered, subscale model of a lenticular airship with a skin-integrated EK drive that was part of the outer surface of the hull.  The drive was electronically steered to provide propulsion in any direction with no external aerodynamic surfaces and no moving parts.

EK-1 aloft in the hanger.  Source: LTAS / Walden Aerospace
EK-1 with a skin-integrated propulsion system moving during hanger test flight in 2003.Source: LTAS / Walden Aerospace
 

In June 2003, LTAS rented a hangar at the Boulder City, NV airport to build and fly the EK-1.  Testing the EK-1 was concluded in early August 2003 after demonstrating the technology to National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) board members.

Based on the EK-1 design, a full-scale EK airship would have a rigid, aeroshell comprised largely of LTAS MK-4 lithographic integrated thruster / structure hull panels.  As with other contemporary Walden / LTAS airship designs, the MK-4 panel airship likely would have implemented density controlled buoyancy (DCB) active aerostatic lift control and would have had a thin film solar array on the top of the aeroshell.

Artist’s concept of a MK-4 panel airship.
Source: Walden Aerospace

5.  The third free-flying, ion-propelled, lighter-than-air craft flew in 2005: the Festo b-IONIC Airfish

The Festo b-IONIC Airfish airship was developed at the Technical University of Berlinwith guidance of the firm Festo AG & Co. KG.  This small, non-rigid airship is notable because, in 2005, it became the first aircraft to fly with a solid state propulsion system.  The neutrally-buoyant Airfish only flew indoors, in a controlled environment, at a very slow speed, but it flew.

Airfish. Source:  Festo AG & Co. KG

Some of the technical characteristics of the Airfish are listed below:

  • Length:  7.5 meters (24.6 ft)
  • Span: 3.0 meters (9.8 ft)
  • Shell diameter: 1.83 meters (6 ft)
  • Helium volume:  9.0 m3(318 ft3)
  • Total weight:  9.04 kg (19.9 lb)
  • Power source in tail: 12 x 1,500 mAh lithium-ion polymer cells (18 Ah total)
  • Power source per wing (two wings): 9 x 3,200 mAh lithium-ion polymer cells (28.8 Ah total)
  • High voltage: 20,000 to 30,000 volts
  • Buoyancy:  9.0 – 9.3 kg (19.8 – 20.5 lb)
  • Total thrust:  8 – 10 grams (0.018 – 0.022 pounds) 
  • Maximum velocity: 0.7 meters/sec (2.5 kph; 1.6 mph)

The b-IONIC Airfish employed two solid state propulsion systems, an electrostatic ionic jet and a plasma ray, which Festo describes as follows:

  • Electrostatic ionic jet:  “At the tail end Airfish uses the classic principle of an electrostatic ionic jet propulsion engine. High-voltage DC-fields (20-30 kV) along thin copper wires tear electrons away from air molecules. The positive ions thus created are then accelerated towards the negatively charged counter electrodes (ring-shaped aluminum foils) at high speeds (300-400 m/s), pulling along additional neutral air molecules. This creates an effective ion stream with speeds of up to 10 m/s.”
  • Plasma-ray:  “The side wings of Airfish are equipped with a new bionic plasma-ray propulsion system, which mimics the wing based stroke principle used by birds, such as penguins, without actually applying movable mechanical parts. As is the case with the natural role model, the plasma-ray system accelerates air in a wavelike pattern while it is moving across the wings.”
Airfish.  Source: Festo AG & Co. KG
Airfish.  Source: Festo AG & Co

The Festo b-IONIC Airfish demonstrated that a solid state propulsion system was possible.  The tests also demonstrated that the solid state propulsion systems also reduced drag, raising the intriguing possibility that it may be possible to significantly reduce drag if an entire vessel could be enclosed in a ionized plasma bubble.You’ll find more information on the Festo b-IONIC Airfish, its solid state propulsion system and implications for drag reduction in the the Festo brochure here: https://www.festo.com/net/SupportPortal/Files/344798/b_IONIC_Airfish_en.pdf

You can watch a 2005 short video on the Festo b-IONIC Airfish flight here:

6.  NASA ionic wind study – 2009

A corona discharge device generates an ionic wind, and thrust, when a high voltage corona discharge is struck between sharply pointed electrodes and larger radius ground electrodes.

In 2009, National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) researchers Jack Wilson, Hugh Perkins and William Thompson conducted a study to examine whether the thrust of corona discharge systems could be scaled to values of interest for aircraft propulsion.  Their results are reported in report NASA/TM-2009-215822, which you’ll find at the following link: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20100000021.pdf

Key points of the study included:

  • Different types of high voltage electrodes were tried, including wires, knife-edges, and arrays of pins. A pin array was found to be optimum. 
  • Parametric experiments, and theory, showed that the thrust per unit power could be raised from early values of 5 N/kW to values approaching 50 N/kW, but only by lowering the thrust produced, and raising the voltage applied. 
  • In addition to using DC voltage, pulsed excitation, with and without a DC bias, was examined. The results were inconclusive as to whether this was advantageous. 
  • It was concluded that the use of a corona discharge for aircraft propulsion did not seem very practical.”

7.  The first heavier-than-air, fixed-wing, ion-propelled aircraft flew in 2018

On 21 November 2018, MIT researchers reported successfully flying the world’s first heavier-than-air, fixed-wing, ion-propelled (electroaerodynamic, EAD) aircraft.  You can read the paper by Haofeng Xu, et al., “Flight of an aeroplane with solid-state propulsion,” on the Nature website here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0707-9

The design of the MIT EAD aircraft is shown below:

a, Computer-generated rendering of the EAD airplane. 
b, Photograph of actual EAD airplane (after multiple flight trials).

Some of the technical characteristics of this MIT aircraft are listed below:

  • Wingspan: 4.9 meters (16 ft)
  • Total weight: 2.45 kg (5.4 lb)
  • Power source: powered by 54 x 3.7 volt 150 mAh lithium-ion polymer cells (8.1 Ah total)
  • High voltage: 40,000 volts (+ 20,000 volts / – 20,000 volts)
  • Total thrust: 3.2 N, 326 grams (0.718 pounds) 
  • Maximum velocity: 4.8 meters/sec (17.3 kph; 10.7 mph)

In their paper, the MIT researchers reported:

  • “We performed ten flights with the full-scale experimental aircraft at the MIT Johnson Indoor Track…. Owing to the limited length of the indoor space (60 m), we used a bungeed launch system to accelerate the aircraft from stationary to a steady flight velocity of 5 meters/sec within 5 meters, and performed free flight in the remaining 55 meters of flight space. We also performed ten unpowered glides with the thrusters turned off, in which the airplane flew for less than 10 meters. We used cameras and a computer vision algorithm to track the aircraft position and determine the flight trajectory.”
  • “All flights gained height over the 8–9 second segment of steady flight, which covered a distance of 40–45 meters…. The average physical height gain of all flights was 0.47 meters…. However, for some of the flights, the aircraft velocity decreased during the flight. An adjustment for this loss of kinetic energy…. results in an energy equivalent height gain, which is the height gain that would have been achieved had the velocity remained constant. This was positive for seven of the ten flights, showing that better than steady-level flight had been achieved in those cases.”
  • “In this proof of concept for this method of propulsion, the realized thrust-to-power ratio was 5 N/kW1, which is of the order of conventional airplane propulsion methods such as the jet engine.”  Overall efficiency was estimated to be 2.56%.

The propulsion principles of the MIT EAD aircraft are explained in relation to the following diagram in the November 2018 article by Franck Plouraboué, “Flying With Ionic Wind,” which you can read on the Nature website at the following link:  https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07411-z

The following diagram and explanatory text are reproduced from that article.

  • In Figure a, above: …an electric field (not shown) is applied to the region surrounding a fine wire called the emitter (shown in cross-section). The field induces electron cascades, whereby free electrons collide with air molecules (not shown in the cascades) and consequently free up more electrons. This process produces charged air molecules in the vicinity of the emitter — a corona discharge. Depending on the electric field, negatively or positively charged molecules drift away (red arrows) from the emitter. These molecules collide with neutral air molecules, generating an ionic wind (black arrows). 
  • In Figure b, above: The aircraft uses a series of emitters and devices called collectors, the longitudinal directions of which are perpendicular to the ionic wind. The flow of charged air molecules occurs mainly along the directions (red arrows) joining emitters and collectors. Consequently, the ionic wind is accelerated (black arrows) predominantly in these regions. 

You can view a short video of the MIT EAD aircraft test flights here:  

8.  The future of ionic propulsion for aerospace applications.

If it can be successfully developed to much larger scales, ionic propulsion offers the potential for aircraft to fly in the atmosphere on a variety of practical missions using only ionized air for propulsion.  Using other ionized fluid media, ionic propulsion could develop into a means to fly directly from the surface of the earth into the vacuum of space and then operate in that environment. The following organizations have been developing such systems.

Electrofluidsystems Ltd.

In 2006, the Technical University of Berlin’s Airfish project manager, Berkant Göksel, founded the firm Electrofluidsystems Ltd., which in 2012 was rebranded as IB Göksel Electrofluidsystems.  This firm presently is developing a new third generation of plasma-driven airships with highly reduced ozone and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, magneto-plasma actuators for plasma flow control, and the company’s own blended wing type flying wing products.  You’ll find their website here:  https://www.electrofluidsystems.com

Source: Electrofluidsystems TU Berlin
Advanced plasma-driven aircraft concept. Source:  Electrofluidsystems TU Berlin

MIT researchers are developing designs for high-performance aircraft using ionic propulsion.  Theoretically, efficiency improves with speed, with an efficiency of 50% possible at a speed of about 1,000 kph (621 mph).  You can watch a short video on MIT work to develop a Star Trek-like ion drive aircraft here:  

Electron Air LLC

Another firm active in the field of ionic propulsion is Electron Air LLC (https://electronairllc.org), which, on 6 November 2018, was granted patent US10119527B2 for their design for a self-contained ion powered craft.  Their grid shaped craft is described as follows:

“The aircraft assembly includes a collector assembly, an emitter assembly, and a control circuit operatively connected to at least the emitter and collector assemblies and comprising a power supply configured to provide voltage to the emitter and collector assemblies. The assembly is configured, such that, when the voltage is provided from an on board power supply, the aircraft provides sufficient thrust to lift each of the collector assembly, the emitter assembly, and the entire power supply against gravity.”

The device, as shown in patent Figure 3, consists of a two-layer grid structure with a collector assembly (50), an emitter assembly (70) and peripheral supports (33 to 37).

You can read patent US10119527B2 here: https://patents.google.com/patent/US10119527B2/en?oq=10119527

This patent cites Alexander de Seversky’s Patent 3130945, “Ionocraft.”

You can watch a short (1:22 minute) video of an outdoor tethered test flight of a remotely controlled, self-contained, ion powered, heavier-than-air craft with onboard power at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aX21HCHlgKo

University of Florida, Applied Physics Research Group

In the early 2000s, a Wingless Electromagnetic Air Vehicle (WEAV) was invented by Dr. Subrata Roy, a plasma physicist and aerospace engineering professor at the University of Florida. WEAV is described as a heavier-than-air flight system that can self-lift, hover, and fly using plasma propulsion with no moving components. The laboratory-scale device is six inch (15.2 cm) in diameter.  The basic configuration of the disc-shaped craft is shown in patent 8960595B2 Figure 1.

This research project has been supported by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research. You’ll find details on WEAV technology in the University of Florida’s 2011 final report at the following (very slow loading) link: https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a564120.pdf

In this report, the authors describe the technology: “This revolutionary concept is based on the use of an electro-(or magneto) hydrodynamic (EHD/MHD) thrust generation surface that is coated with multiple layers of dielectric polymers with exposed and/or embedded electrodes for propulsion and dynamic control. This technology has the unique capability of imparting an accurate amount of thrust into the surrounding fluid enabling the vehicle to move and react. Thrust is instantaneously and accurately controlled by the applied power, its waveform, duty cycle, phase lag and other electrical parameters. Once the applied power is removed the thrust vanishes.”

The following patents related to WEAV technology have been filed and assigned to the University of Florida Research Foundation Inc.:

These patents do not cite Alexander de Seversky’s Patent 3130945, “Ionocraft.”

9.  More reading on electrodynamic propulsion for aircraft

General

MIT electroaerodynamic aircraft

Ionocraft lifters

WEAV