Experimental plane flies silently, may lead to quiet drones

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NEW YORK – A nearly silent, drone-sized aircraft has been shown as a fly, thanks to a scientist who was inspired by "Star Trek" as a child.

With neither propellers nor jets, the airplane gets its thrust That general idea has been demonstrated at science fairs, but the new work shows a free-flying airplane.

Can people look forward to traveling in planes that are almost silent and emit no air pollution?

"Not anytime soon," says Steven Barrett of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who reported the results in a study released.

It's not clear if the technology could work at such a scale. It would take a few decades to develop such plans, he said.

Before that, the approach might be used in airplane-like drones that performs like environmental monitoring and surveillance, he said. As drones become more common in urban skies, the lack of noise would be an advantage in making them less bothersome to people on the ground, he said.

The MIT athletic building. With a wingspan of about 16 feet (5 meters), the five-pound (2.45-kilogram) plane sailed along at about 11 mph (17 kph). Each flight covered about 60 yards (55 meters).

Barrett, 35, said he was a child by watching "Star Trek" television episodes and movies, where he was struck by the shuttles that flew with no moving parts in their propulsion systems. He recalled thinking, "There should be a way to fly without having propellers and (jet) turbines."

As an adult, I focused on that and came across a concept called "ionic wind."

For the MIT airplane, that involves a series of powerful electric fields. The field strips electrons from air molecules, turning the molecules into positively charged particles called ions. These particles flow to negatively charged parts of the plane, colliding with ordinary air molecules and transferring energy to them. Barrett explained that it produces a wind that provides thrust for the plane.

A similar process has been used in outer space to propel some spacecraft, he said.

Barrett said he hopes to find a way to eliminate the "very slight buzz" one can hear.

"I think they're onto something here," said Pat Anderson, a professor of aerospace engineering at the Daytona Beach, Florida, campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He had no role in the research.

He called the results impressive. But the experimental aircraft lacks the range and endurance to be used as a "drone", and it's not clear if the technology could be scaled up to fix that or become useful for propelling a passenger plane, he said.

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Follow Malcolm Ritter at @MalcolmRitter

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The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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