Dynamic breakthrough

Unmanned aircraft could be controlled using plasma and electro-magnetic pulses, with UK research being funded by BAE Systems.

The research, being undertaken at Swansea University, is looking into the use of ionised gas and electro-magnetic pulses to steer unmanned vehicles.

Using plasma to control the aircraft’s dynamics could dramatically simplify their design, as there would be no need for the complicated systems currently used to operate flaps and ailerons, said Prof Ken Morgan, a member of the research team and a specialist in computational fluid dynamics at the university.

The technology would also make the aircraft less detectable by enemy radar systems. Aircraft controlled by electronic systems have a number of moving parts, which when joined together often leave gaps that can be detected by radar. So the smooth contour made possible by using plasma for steering control would minimise the aircraft’s radar return.

Plasma would be ejected from a source near the nose, and would stream down the top of the aircraft. A magnetic field would then be applied to the plasma to move the aircraft in different directions. researchers are conducting initial calculations into whether this would produce sufficient force to steer the vehicle, said Morgan.

‘We are looking to make sure you can use plasma to control the conventional aerodynamic forces.’

The researchers are conducting an initial feasibility study, using computer modelling to investigate the benefits of using plasma and electro-magnetic pulses rather than electronics.

Developing unmanned aerial vehicles without conventional control systems is one of BAE’s strategic aims, said Prof John Murphy, head of university partnerships at BAE Systems.

‘We have asked if we can use plasma and electro-magnetics to drive unmanned aircraft in the future. In academia most developments are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but if using plasma for steering comes off, it will be revolutionary.’

The project will investigate the technologies needed to produce an aircraft controlled by plasma, and many issues need to be resolved, he said. ‘Can we produce a device that can easily generate plasma, and how much plasma do we need? The researchers are beginning initial calculations, and if it is feasible they will go on to more detailed research.’

The project is part of a new five-year, £30m partnership BAE Systems has established with the EPSRC, designed to promote research addressing the long-term needs of the aerospace and defence sector, said Murphy.

‘We want to evolve key capability groups within aerospace and defence. We have about 50 primary academic partners at the moment, who are technical and scientific specialists in different fields.’

The plasma project is being run as part of the aeronautical engineering network, which is being co-ordinated by Cranfield University, said Murphy.

Other networks include systems engineering, signal and information systems, and support engineering.