Professor Designs Plasma Driven UFO

This illustration by Danielle Zawoy for the University of Florida depicts what a wingless electromagnetic air vehicle might look like as it flies in the atmosphere above Mars. University of Florida mechanical and aerospace engineering associate professor Subrata Roy has recently applied for a patent to build a circular aircraft that can hover in the air like a helicopter without any moving parts or fuel.

The saucer will hover and propel itself using electrodes that cover its surface to ionize the surrounding air into plasma. Gases (such as air, which has an equal number of positive and negative charges) become plasma when energy (such as heat or electricity) causes some of the gas's atoms to lose their negatively charged electrons, creating atoms with a positive charge, or positive ions, surrounded by the newly detached electrons.

Using an onboard source of energy (such as a battery, ultra-capacitor or a solar panel) the electrodes will send an electrical current into the plasma, causing the plasma to push against the neutral (noncharged) air surrounding the craft, theoretically generating enough force for lift off and movement in different directions (depending on where on the craft's surface you direct the electrical current)

At six inches (15.2 centimetres) in diameter, the device, which Roy calls a "wingless electromagnetic air vehicle" (
WEAV), will truly be a flying saucer. Theoretically, Roy says, the flying saucer can be as large as anyone wants to build it, because the design gives the aircraft balance and stability. In other words, this type of aircraft could someday be built large enough to ferry around people. But, Roy says, "we need to walk before we can run, so we're starting small."

The biggest hurdle to building a WEAV large enough to carry passengers would be making the craft light, yet powerful enough to lift its cargo and energy source. Roy is not sure what kind of energy source he will use yet. He anticipates that the craft's body will be made from a material that is an insulator such as ceramic, which is light and a good conductor of electricity. "In theory you probably should be able to scale it up," says Anthony Colozza, a researcher who is stationed at NASA's Glenn Research Centre in Cleveland and helped Roy draw up the original plans for powering the saucer. The choice of a power source that is powerful, yet lightweight is "probably going to be the thing that makes or breaks it."

Roy began designing the WEAV in 2006. The following year, he and  Colozza wrote a paper for the now-defunct NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) about the use of electro-hydrodynamics, or ionized particles, as an alternative to liquid fuel for powering space vehicles. When NASA shut down NIAC in August 2007, Roy decided to continue his work at U.F.

Cut-away illustration of proposed prototype mini-flying saucer. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Florida)If he's successful, Roy hopes to develop a more stable aircraft and a new form of fuel—air. Other craft that interact with the atmosphere have a problem: moving parts, whether jet engines, propellers or rotors. "My interest started when I saw inherent problems in helicopters and airplanes," Roy says. If these parts stop moving, the aircraft falls from the sky. The flying saucer, on the other hand, has no moving parts.

In theory, the WEAV would be more stable than an aircraft—airplanes and helicopters, for example—that rely on aerodynamics to provide lift.

Using a plasma field, "you could produce lift in any direction, you could change direction quickly and that power could be turned on or off almost instantly," Colozza says. If the pilot wanted such an aircraft to move to the right, he or she would increase power to electrodes on the left side of the craft and vice versa for moving to the left. Electrodes on the bottom of the craft would power its lift, whereas those on top would bring the craft back down to Earth.

Roy has been working with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, since 2001 to study how plasma could be used to control the flow of air—pushing air in different directions - and thereby the vehicle's movements. "If plasma (flow) is turned on the right way, I can blow air any direction I want to blow air," says Doug Blake, deputy director of the Air Force Research Lab's Air Vehicles Directorate, of the craft's ability to push air away from itself.

"If I have a jet coming out of the bottom of this, I can create a helicopter with no moving parts. Things that you would use a helicopter for, you could use this for."