I hate to be the one to rain on Steve Barrett's parade, but he’s not the first one to fly an ion wind powered UAV. A friend and colleague of mine
built and flew one for the government about 10 or 12 years ago.
Back when I was still an aerospace engineer for NASA on the West coast, I had a friend and colleague aerospace engineer who worked for a different
agency on the other side of the country. He was the most creative and productive airplane designer in the country that you’ve probably never heard
of. During his career he had designed, built, and flown probably several dozen prototypes, some of which went into series production. He designed
small ones and big ones, piloted ones and unpiloted ones, fast ones and slow ones. He did this for the military as well as for three letter agencies.
Some of his designs were completely unclassified, some were deep dark, and some were in between. His ion wind UAV was one of the in between ones. It
wasn’t formally classified, but on the other hand, it was never publicized in any way. My friend is no longer alive, and I never got his permission
to give names and locations to anyone else, so that’s why I’m keeping this description generic and nonattributable.
Like me, he had a private interest in the UFO phenomenon and, I think for that reason, was always open to considering out of the box ideas. That
reputation got around, and back when the ion wind “Lifters” became a kind of underground movement, a government agency other than the one he
worked for approached him and gave him a little funding to spend some time seeing 1) what physics was behind the “Lifters” (also known as
“ionocraft”) and 2) whether it could be used to construct practical flight vehicles.
His lab recreated the experiments with vertical lifting ionocraft as described in the popular literature and determined that there was nothing
mysterious going on; it was simply naturally occurring ions in the air being accelerated and entraining the non ionized air molecules along with them.
They quickly realized that even using the lightest power supplies that the US military could acquire, there was no way they could make the thing lift
its own weight. But, like the guy from MIT in the SciAm article, they realized they could probably push an airplane with it if they could make an
airframe with an L/D of about 20 or so. That is about like a low performance sailplane, so that wasn’t really a challenge.
Unlike the MIT guy, they integrated the ion propulsion effect right in to the wing. They simply put a conducting wire out in front of the leading
edge of the wing on insulated posts and made the skin of the wing a conducting surface. That way the ion wind would flow directly from the negatively
charged wire directly toward and around the positively charged wing surface. In effect the wing became a blown surface.
I never saw the videos of it, but my friend said it worked pretty well. And it produced a number of interesting effects, some of which the posters
here have already mentioned. It was pretty quiet, except for the hissing and crackling of corona discharge (which you had to be pretty close to to
hear). When flown at night, it produced a soft, spooky blue glow from the corona. And yes, it was basicaly a flying bug zapper. Additionally,
because the wings and some of the fuselage was surrounded continuously by a low density ion sheath the configuration naturally had a certain amount of
My friend gave the information to the sponsoring agency and that’s the last I heard of it. Whether it ever turned into an operational device, I
have no idea.
a reply to: dug88