The ions automatically move from a positive to negative charge, dragging with them air particles that create the so-called "ionic wind" to provide the aircraft with lift.
"This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler, and do not emit combustion emissions", said Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Barrett admits to being inspired by Star Trek.
London-born Steven Barrett, Professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT in the United States, said: "This has potentially opened new and unexplored possibilities for aircraft which are quieter, mechanically simpler - and do not emit combustion emissions".
Ever since that first flight, most aircraft have relied on moving parts such as propellers or turbines to power them through the air.
He revealed that he was partly inspired by the TV sci-fi series Star Trek, which he watched avidly as a child. He was especially impressed by the show's futuristic shuttle crafts that skimmed through space with "just a blue glow and silently glide".
The silent system takes a powerful flow of ions generated on board the aircraft and uses it to propel the plane forward over a sustained and steady flight.
The team's final design resembles a large, lightweight glider.
The ion-drive aircraft's design is fairly simple: a thin wire acts as the leading edge, where nitrogen and oxygen get ionized by 20,000 volts of electricity. Once the front wires are powered up, they attract surrounding air molecules and strip away negatively charged electrons - that's the ionization part.
The fuselage of the plane holds a stack of lithium-polymer batteries.
In the immediate future, the MIT team hope to increase the range and speed of the plane, primarily by scaling up the size of the overall machine.
Ionic technologies have always been a staple of sci-fi movies.
Ionic wind, also known as electroaerodynamic thrust, was first identified in the 1920s and explored by scientists and engineers in the USA and at Britain's Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in the 1960s, but they were only able to produce very low levels of thrust, insufficient for flight. Barrett said he's also interested in finding out out whether ion propulsion could lead to a different kind of aircraft, such as fixed-wing fliers with no visible propulsion system or controls surfaces such as rudders and elevators.
The researchers were confident that it could power even the silent drones.
The team is working on ways of producing more ionic wind with less voltage. Currently, flying the teams lightweight plane requires a large area of electrodes, which essentially makes up the planes propulsion system. But the experimental aircraft lacks the range and endurance to serve as a useful drone, and it's not clear whether the technology could be scaled up to fix that or become useful for propelling a passenger plane, he said.
It took a long time to get here, Barrett says. Going from the basic principle to something that actually flies was a long journey of characterising the physics, then coming up with the design and making it work.
The end result is a propulsion system that is entirely electrically powered, nearly silent, and with a thrust-to-power ratio comparable to that achieved by conventional systems such as jet engines.