This is an artist’s illustration of what a Wingless Electromagnetic Air Vehicle
might look like as it flies in the atmosphere above Mars.
(Danielle Zawoy for the University of Florida)
A scientist from the University of Florida has recently filed a patent that is attracting everyone from NASA and the US Air Force to UFO-seekers and sci-fi enthusiasts.
Since 2006, Subrata Roy, a mechanical and aerospace engineering associate professor, has been working on a “flying saucer” aircraft design that turns surrounding air into plasma to generate its propulsion. The saucer, or “wingless electromagnetic air vehicle” (WEAV), has no moving parts and therefore could be more stable than airplanes and helicopters that rely on aerodynamics to provide lift.
The six-inch WEAV would be powered by magnetohydrodynamics – the force created by passing a current or magnetic field through a conducting fluid. In this case, plasma would act as the conducting fluid. Electrodes on the WEAV, powered by an onboard energy source such as a battery or solar panel, would ionize the surrounding air into plasma.
Then, the electrodes on the bottom of the aircraft would shoot a current through the plasma, causing the charged particles to push against the neutral surrounding air, and creating lift. To turn right or left, electrodes on the opposite side of the aircraft would generate a current to move in the desired direction.
The advantages of using a plasma field include the ability to produce lift in any direction, quickly change direction, and turn the power on or off almost instantly, according to Anthony Colozza, a researcher with Analex Corporation who is stationed at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, who helped with the original WEAV plans.
Roy hopes to build a prototype of the aircraft and perform flight tests within the next year. If the six-inch design proves to be successful, he predicts that larger-scale versions – possibly manned – should also be conceivable.
This wouldn’t be the first time an aircraft has flown using magnetohydrodynamics. Around 2000, a NASA team used ionized air propulsion to fly a craft that was attached to an external battery, said Colozza.
The Florida researchers will still face several challenges before getting their craft up, such as using a lightweight material to achieve the large thrust to overcome earth’s gravity. Also, the plasma that will allow the aircraft to fly will also interfere with electromagnetic waves necessary for communication with the vehicle.
Even though Roy’s design is still in the beginning stages, NASA and the US Air Force have contacted him to discuss possible applications. Since the system requires air or some kind of magnetic field to operate, it couldn’t fly in space, but it might still be useful for exploring other planets and moons. Perhaps more feasible are military applications, such as surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
“Of course the risk is huge, but so is the payoff,” Roy said. “If successful, we will have an aircraft, a saucer, and a helicopter all in one embodiment.”