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.
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.
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.
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.
AquaJelly (2008): replicates the natural underwater movements of a jelly fish in a small, autonomous, peristaltic drive autonomous underwater vehicle that can operate in coordination with several other AquaJellies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-O8-N71Qcw
Peter Lobner, updated 12 November 2023 (post-Rev. 5)
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 240 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 (as of Rev 5) for all three parts at the following link. This should help you navigate the large volume of material in the three documents.
Consolidated TOC: Coming soon
Modern Airships – Part 2 begins with a summary graphic table identifying the airships addressed in this part, and concludes by providing links to 113 individual articles on those airships. A downloadable pdf copy of Part 2 (as of Rev 5) is available here:
Part 2 main body & tables: Coming soon
Each of the linked articles can be individually downloaded.
If you have any comments or wish to identify errors in these documents, please send me an e-mail to: [email protected].
I hope you’ll find the Modern Airships series to be informative, useful, and different from any other single document on this subject.
12 November 2023
Record of revisions to Part 2
Original Modern Airships post, 26 August 2016: addressed 14 airships in a single post.
Expanded the Modern Airships post and split it into three parts, 18 August 2019: Part 2 included 25 articles
Part 2, Revision 1, 21 December 2020: Added 2 new articles on Walden Aerospace. Part 2 now had 27 articles
Part 2, Revision 2, 3 April 2021: Added 35 new articles, split the original variable buoyancy propulsion article into three articles, and updated all of the original articles. Also updated and reformatted the summary graphic table. Part 2 now had 64 articles.
Part 2, Revision 3, 9 September 2021: Updated 7 articles. Added category for “thermal (hot air) airships” and added pages for them in the summary graphic table. Part 2 still had 64 articles.
Part 2, Revision 4, 11 February 2022: Added 26 new articles, expanded the graphic tables and updated 12 existing articles. Part 2 now had 90 articles.
Part 2, Revision 5, 10 March 2022: Added 1 new article, split rigid & semi-rigid airships in the graphic tables, and updated 52 existing articles. With this revision, all Part 2 linked articles have been updated in February or March 2022. Part 2 now has 91 articles.
Since Rev. 5 was posted, the following additions and updates have been made in the online version of Part 2.
Strasa.Tech – HAPS platforms (30 May 2022)
China – Hybrid airship for airborne electromagnetic (AEM) surveying (15 June 2022)
Aere Airships (22 July 2022)
Cloudline – autonomous cargo drone airship (16 October 2022)
China – Cloud One – 5G base station aerostat (19 October 2022)
China – Jimu No 1 – high altitude aerostat (19 October 2022)
China – Shanghai Jiao Tong University – research airships (19 October 2022)
China – Suzhou Ark Aviation Technology Co. Ltd. – drone blimps (19 October 2022)
Challenger Aerospace Systems – drone blimps (29 October 2022)
AirbineTM Renewable Energy Systems (ARES) – Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT) (11 January 2023)
ADASI – tethered aerostats (19 June 2023)
Aeerstatica Energy Airships – tethered aerostat wind generator (19 June 2023)
Aero-T – SkyGuard tethered aerostat (19 June 2023)
Airborne Industries – tethered aerostats & parachute training balloons (19 June 2023)
Augur RosAeroSystems – tethered aerostats (19 June 2023)
China – Hangzhou Gauss Inflatable Tech Co., Ltd – drone blimps & tethered aerostats (19 June 2023)
DRDO ADRDE – tethered aerostats & small unmanned airship (19 June 2023)
Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) – HAAS tethered aerostat (19 June 2023)
Jülich Institute – FieldShip drone blimp (19 June 2023)
Otonom Teknoloji – tethered aerostats & drone airship (19 June 2023)
RT LTA Systems Ltd – tethered aerostats (19 June 2023)
MOVED FROM PART 1: Voliris airships (5 October 2023)
MOVED FROM PART 1: GEFA-Flug, APEX & Skyacht thermal (hot air) airships (5 October 2023)
UPDATED ALL PART 2 GRAPHIC TABLES (12 November 2023)
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 categories listed below.
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 / HAPS (P2.2)” is the page title for the second page in the “Stratospheric airships / HAPS” category in Part 2. There also are stratospheric airships / HAPS addressed in Modern Airships – Part 1.
Non-rigid airships (blimps)
Semi-buoyant hybrid airships
Semi-buoyant aircraft / airship hybrids
Variable buoyancy airships
Variable buoyancy / fixed volume airships
Variable buoyancy / variable vacuum airships
Variable buoyancy / variable volume airships
Variable buoyancy propulsion airships / aircraft
Hybrid thermal-gas (Rozière) airships
Thermal (hot air) airships
Helicopter / airship hybrids
Stratospheric airships / High Altitude Platforms (HAPS)
Electro-kinetically (EK) propelled airships
Tethered aerostats (kite balloons)
Tethered LTA wind turbines
Tethered heavy load lifter balloons
Free flying balloons
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 described in Part 2, the following advanced airship seems to be the best candidate for achieving type certification in the next five years:
Flying Whales (France): The LCA60T rigid cargo airship was significantly redesigned in 2021, which resulted in a considerable schedule delay. In March 2023, Flying Whales reported that they expected to complete construction and flight testing of the first production prototype in the 2024 – 2025 timeframe, followed by EASA certification and start of industrial production in 2026. The project appears to be well funded from diverse international sources in France, Canada, China and Morocco. Full-scale production facilities are planned in France, China and Canada and commercial airship operating infrastructure is being planned.
Hybrid Air Vehicles (UK): The Airlander 10 commercial passenger / cargo hybrid airship is being developed by HAV based on their experience with the Airlander 10 prototype, which flew from 2016 to 2017. In 2022, Valencia, Spain-based Air Nostrum, which operates regional flights, ordered 10 Airlander 10 aircraft, with delivery scheduled for 2026. Also in 2022, Highlands and Islands Airport (HIAL) sponsored a study for introducing the Airlander 10 in Scotland. In April 2023, the regional UK government of South Yorkshire concluded a financial agreement that is expected to lead to the Airlander 10 being manufactured in Doncaster, in the north of England. Things are moving in the right direction. In March 2023, HAV reported that manufacturing of the first production airship will start in 2023, followed by first flight in 2025 and service entry in 2027.
The following airship manufacturers in Part 2 have advanced designs and they seem to be ready to manufacture a first prototype if they can arrange funding:
Aerovehicles (USA / Argentina): They claim their AV-10 non-rigid, multi-mission blimp can carry a 10 metric ton payload and be type certified within existing regulations for blimps. This should provide a lower-risk route to market for an airship with an operational capability that does not exist today.
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 Atlas-6 and -11 blimps and unmanned variants. However, the development plans and schedules have not yet been made public.
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.
Euro Airship (France): The firm reports having production-ready plans for their rigid airship designs. In June 2023, Euro Airship announced plans to build and fly a large rigid airship known as Solar Airship One around the world in 2026.
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, their development plan defines the work needed to build and certify a prototype and a larger production airship.
Varialift (UK): The factory in France and the ARH-PT prototype are under construction, but the schedule for completing the prototype, once planned for 2019, continues to slip, primarily because of tenuous funding. Without a stronger funding stream, the future schedule is unpredictable.
The promising airships in Part 2, listed above, will be competing in the worldwide airship market with candidates identified in Modern Airships – Part 1, which potentially could enter the market in the same time frame. Among the new airships described in Part 1, the following advanced airship seems to be the best candidates for achieving type certification in the next five years:
LTA Research and Exploration (USA): Pathfinder 1 rigid airship, which is expected to make its first flight in 2023. The program appears to be well funded.
The following airship manufacturers in Part 1 have advanced designs and they seem to be ready to manufacture a first commercial prototype if they can arrange adequate funding:
AT2 Aerospace (USA): Their Z1 hybrid airship formerly was known as the Lockheed Martin LMH-1. In May 2023, Lockheed Martin exited the hybrid airship business without completing type certification and transitioned that business, including intellectual property and related assets, to the newly formed, commercial company AT2 Aerospace. In June, Straightline Aviation (a former LMH-1 customer) signed a Letter of Intent with AT2 Aerospace, signaling commercial support for the Z1 hybrid airship.
Aeros (USA): It seems that Aeros has been ready for more than a decade to begin type certification and manufacture a prototype of their Aeroscraft ML866 / Aeroscraft Gen 2 variable buoyancy / fixed volume airship. The firm has reported successful subsystem tests.
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 has built a new headquarters and manufacturing facility in New Mexico. Short-duration stratospheric communications system flight tests were conducted in 2021. A long duration test should be coming soon.
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. Time will tell if Thales Alenia Space can meet the new schedule with the available funding.
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 by the 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 manned tri-lobe airship could be flying later in the 2020s.
There has been 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 applications. Some enterprising LTA drone developers also are developing value-adding applications and are offering information services, rather than simply selling a drone to be operated by a customer.
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 the individual articles that address all of the airships identified in the preceding graphic table.
Note that a few of these articles address more than one airship design from the same manufacturer / designer and they may be in different categories (i.e., Augur RosAeroSystems, Atlas LTA Advanced Technology). These designs are listed separately in the above graphic tables and in the following index. The links listed below will take you to the same article.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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)
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.
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
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).
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.:
Nicolas Monrolin, Franck Plouraboué, Olivier Praud.“Electrohydrodynamic Thrust for In-Atmosphere Propulsion,” AIAA Journal, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2017, vol. 55 (n° 12), pp. 4296-4305. 10.2514/1.J055928 . hal-01660600; https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01660600/document