A team of engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US has discovered a new way of reducing an aircraft’s lighting risks by installing an onboard system that would protect a plane by electrically charging it.

The study found that if a plane was charged to the right level, it could significantly reduce the possibility of it being struck by lightning. It forms part of research sponsored by Boeing.

It was inspired by the fact that when an aircraft flies through an ambient electric field, its external electrical state, normally in balance, shifts.

When an external electric field polarises the aircraft, one end of the plane becomes more positively charged, and the other end strikes towards a more negative charge.

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As the plane becomes gradually polarised, it can transmit a highly conductive flow of plasma, known as a positive leader, which occurs before a lightning strike.

“According to researchers, the charging would require less power than a standard lightbulb.”

In such dangerous scenario, MIT researchers propose temporarily charging a plane to a negative level to reduce the more highly charged positive end, thus preventing that end from reaching a critical level and causing a lightning strike.

Researchers have conceptually demonstrated the success of this method through modelling, which includes the outfitting of a plane with an automated control system featuring sensors and actuators fitted with small power supplies.

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The sensors will be used to monitor the surrounding electric field for signs of possible leader formation when the actuators will emit a current to charge the aircraft in the appropriate direction.

According to researchers, the charging would require less power than a standard lightbulb.

MIT emeritus professor Manuel Martinez-Sanchez, who was involved in the research, said: “The scenario we can take care of is flying into an area where there are storm clouds, and the storm clouds produce an intensification of the electric field in the atmosphere.

“That can be sensed and measured on board, and we can claim that for such relatively slow-developing events, you can charge a plane and adapt in real time. That is quite feasible.”

Preliminary experiments in MIT’s Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel have been conducted to test the feasibility of charging on a simple, metallic sphere.

Researchers expect to perform experiments in more realistic environments such as flying drones through a thunderstorm.