Newswise — You're gazing at the horizon when you see a small dot moving across the sky. A plane? A bird? No, it's the solid-state aircraft.
A futuristic plane concept created by a small research team, the solid-state aircraft will fly just like a bird; it will arch its broad wings up and then flap them down in one continuous, fluid motion. No turbines or propellers, no flaps or rudders, will interrupt the smooth surface of the plane's flattened body.
In an article in the May 2007 issue of IEEE Spectrum, aerospace researcher Anthony Colozza, a member of the solid-state aircraft team, describes what it would take to build such a plane. The group, which has been working on the project for the past seven years with funding from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, has completed a feasibility study and worked out an initial design--and even some functional, if crude, proof-of-principle demonstrators.
"As currently envisioned," Colozza writes, "the ultraslim vehicle would be unmanned, solar-powered, and made of strong, lightweight materials." Rather than a conventional metal framework and hydraulically actuated parts, the plane's body would consist of a plasticlike material called an ionic polymer-metal composite, which deforms when exposed to an electric field. The plane will also use thin sheets of photovoltaics material and lithium battery. Colozza's team calls the aircraft "solid-state" because it has no moving parts and uses advanced materials.
But why fly like a bird? Colozza says energy efficiency is the main reason. The solid-state aircraft will fly like an albatross, which can glide great distances and circle over the same area for long periods of time, flapping only to regain altitude. Another advantage is control. To maneuver, the solid-state aircraft will adjust its wings into complex shapes, much as birds do, rather than using flaps or other moving surfaces.
Colozza, a researcher with Analex Corp., in Fairfax, Va., and NASA Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland, says that the solid-state aircraft could become a reality within a decade or two. "The plane would have many potential uses: gathering scientific data, relaying communications, and surveying terrain are but a few," he writes. Thanks to its flexible body, it could be stowed and then deployed in remote places on Earth or even on other planets whose inhospitable atmospheres would doom air-breathing planes.