The classic 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still features the quintessential depiction of a flying saucer. As the local townspeople gaze upward and gawk in wonder, the alien spaceship wafts overhead like a giant frisbee before hovering over what is supposed to be the National Mall in Washington, DC, and gently touching ground.
It was an era when the nation was enamored of the prospect of one day building our own versions of saucer-shaped aircraft. But the idea actually dates back to an obscure patent granted in 1898 to one F.A. Jone — a rare bit of archival history recently highlighted by blogger John Ptak, who specializes in this kind of obscure trivia (like the first achievement of upside-down flight in 1913.
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Ptak notes (based on the patent drawings): “From the ladder that led to the major axle we can infer that the aircraft was at least 60 feet high, which made its disk apparatus a very ferris-wheel-like 40′ or 50′ in diameter.”
Unfortunately, almost nothing else is known about the mysterious Mr. Jone (including why there’s no “s” at the end of his surname). But I think we can safely assume that his patent design was never built — and even if it was, it wasn’t operable.
It’s that whole vertical takeoff and landing thing, combined with sharp, sudden forward propulsion, that’s the main sticking point (and also the biggest advantages if we could just overcome those technical challenges).
Those are difficult maneuvers for an aircraft to pull off in quick combination, even for helicopters, which can become unstable especially in high winds. Physics always demands some sort of tradeoff, it seems.
Oh, but men can dream — and dream they have! Back in 1956, Mechanix Ilustrated waxed enthusiastically in a rather overly credulous article about the potential for flying saucers. The author was especially excited about the potential offered by something called the “Coanda effect.”
Its namesake was a Romanian aeronautics engineer, Henri Coanda, who noticed that airflow followed a curved surface quite nicely, provided the surface angle wasn’t too sharp. Even better, theoretically it could be exploited to increase thrust, accelerating the craft and increasing aerodynamic lift.
Mechanix Illustrated tried to be skeptical, but closed with the declaration, “The one thing we can be sure of is that the flying saucers are coming.”
(FYI: “lift” is typically created by the flow of air molecules around wings and rotor blades. There’s a helpful description of the details here. Extra thrust is essential in Earth’s atmosphere because of the combined toll exacted by gravity and aerodynamic drag.)
Here it is, over 50 years later, and the flying saucers have yet to materialize. Sure, in the 1950s and 1960s the U.S. Air Force flirted with something called the Avrocar, but killed the program when the technical problems proved insurmountable.
Then there was the robotic saucer proposed by the U.S. military in the 1990s, which Science Channel in 2009 described as looking “a bit like a dog’s water bowl with a video camera attached.” It was hardly the stuff of science-fiction fueled dreams.
Fortunately, we have a new working concept over which to wax enthusiastic! Several years ago, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at the University of Florida named Subrata Roy patented his design for a “wingless electromagnetic air vehicle” (WEAV) powered by magnetohydrodynamics — that is, ion propulsion, or plasma, based technology.
Per a 2008 article in Scientific American:
“The saucer will hover and propel itself using electrodes that cover its surface to ionize the surrounding air into plasma. Gases… 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.
I think the operative word here (again) is “theoretically.” But it’s an exciting prospect, nonetheless, perhaps our 21st century version of the Coanda effect. Such a circular, spinning aircraft — LiveScience compared it to a “flying Bundt pan” — could hover and take off vertically while still achieving decent propulsion, without tons of mechanical moving parts. And it would be stable in windy conditions.
Roy built a six-inch battery powered model, and speculated about using the WEAV for airborne surveillance, as well as exploring planetary atmospheres in our solar system, like Saturn’s moon, Titan. But the last we heard from him, there were still weight issues, plus the plasma factor would interfere with electromagnetic communications. These are non-trivial issues, as physicists like to say.
Still, it’s nice to see folks like Roy keeping the dream alive, a century after the mysterious F.A. Jone submitted his patent.