The plasma-powered flying saucer

The plasma-powered flying saucer
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Artist's impression of the WEAV.
Artist's impression of the WEAV.

The military's 60-year-old love affair with circular flying ship designs hasn't really succeeded in doing anything but fuelling the paranoid fantasies of tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists. However, with UAVs taking on an increasingly prominent role in defense, and the development of exciting new methods of propulsion, it's possible that flying saucers may soon reach viability. University of Florida mechanical and aerospace engineering associate professor Subrata Roy has submitted a patent for a circular, spinning craft that can hover and take off vertically.

The wingless electromagnetic air vehicle, or WEAV, is just six inches across, but has the potential to be scaled up to a much larger size. It is efficient enough to be powered by onboard batteries, and Roy estimates that a test flight may be possible in just four months.

The craft is powered by magnetohydrodynamics – the force created by passing a current or magnetic field through a conducting fluid. The WEAV is covered with electrodes that ionize the surrounding air into plasma, which functions as the conducting fluid. Passing a current through the plasma creates lift and momentum, and the hollow, curved design of the WEAV maximizes the contact area between air and vehicle, and allows it to maintain stability. It sounds complicated, but using magnetohydrodynamics eliminates moving parts from the design, making it a far more simple and reliable vessel than propeller-based designs.

Unfortunately, its reliance on magnetic fields means that Roy's flying saucer will not be zipping through outer space. Even flying on Earth is going to present a challenge – it will need to generate an order of magnitude more thrust, and if it succeeds, it will be the first plasma-propelled aircraft to do so within our atmosphere. Another potential problem is that the magnetohydrodynamic system could interfere with communications, forcing scientists to think outside the box for a reliable long-distance control system. Perhaps instead of radio, it could transfer information back to base via the traditional flying saucer methods of crop circles or cattle mutilation.

The WEAV has applications for extra-planetary exploration, especially on Saturn's sixth moon, Titan. There are also obvious military applications for the craft, in surveillance and reconnaissance. Roy's research has interested NASA and the US Air Force, and is a result of Air Force-funded research into plasma actuators.

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