How Electrically Charging Aircraft Could Reduce The Chances Of Lightning Strikes

Commercial airliners are hit by lightning once or twice a year on average, but lightning strikes during a flight aren’t usually dangerous as aircraft are designed to withstand such energy. Still, recent transitions have transformed requirements in this area.

Potential damage

Airbus and Boeing alike have put their faith in composites when it comes to producing modern aircraft. While these materials offer several benefits, they can be notably costly to repair compared to traditional metallic aircraft following a lightning strike. In practice, a Boeing 787 is 80% composite by volume. By weight, the widebody’s material contents are 50% composite.

Just this May, lightning caused major damage to a Jetstar Boeing 787 flying to the Gold Coast from Melbourne. With these factors in mind, it’s becoming more crucial to avoid strikes.

A novel solution

Generally, pilots fly planes around stormy regions to avoid lightning strikes, but sometimes crews have to enter a thunderstorm. Thus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers studied different methods to lower the risk of a strike. The initiative involves an onboard system that would protect an aircraft by electrically charging it. While this approach may seem counterproductive, researchers determined that if a plane would be charged to just the right amount, it would considerably lower its odds of being struck by lightning.

MIT explains the phenomenon with the following:

“The idea stems from the fact that, when a plane flies through an ambient electric field, its external electrical state, normally in balance, shifts. As an external electric field polarizes the aircraft, one end of the plane becomes more positively charged, while the other end swings towards a more negative charge. As the plane becomes increasingly polarized, it can set off a highly conductive flow of plasma, called a positive leader — the preceding stage to a lightning strike. In such a precarious scenario, the researchers propose temporarily charging a plane to a negative level to dampen the more highly charged positive end, thus preventing that end from reaching a critical level and initiating a lightning strike.”

Diving deeper

The team at MIT touted “outfitting a plane with an automated control system consisting of sensors and actuators” backed by little power supplies. The sensors would look at the surrounding electric field for signals of potential leader formation, “in response to which the actuators would emit a current to charge the aircraft in the appropriate direction.” The group concluded that charging would need less power than what is required for an everyday incandescent light bulb.

Jaime Peraire, head of MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics noted that the goal is the make the plane as imperceptible to lightning as achievable. Thus, the team began working on the physics behind the procedure.

The right backing

Boeing sponsored the MIT research program, with results from the study gaining traction back in 2018. While the project seems ambitious, MIT is the right entity behind it. After all, engineers at the university built a plane that flies without any moving parts – no propellers or turbines.

We can expect several aeronautical breakthroughs before this decade is over due to the abundance of research covering all angles. While lightning protection may not be a priority for manufacturers or airlines, it is something that stakeholders would love to be addressed. While we anticipate electricity to play a major role in the future of air travel, it looks like it has an additional role on board in the future.




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