Lightning laboratory test on model aircraft. (Joan Montanya/Polytechnic University of Catalonia)

MIT engineers are proposing a new way to reduce a plane's lightning risk using an onboard system that would protect a plane by electrically charging it. The proposal may seem counterintuitive, but the team found that if a plane were charged to just the right level, its likelihood of being struck by lightning would be significantly reduced.

The team envisions outfitting a plane with an automated control system consisting of sensors and actuators fitted with small power supplies. The sensors would monitor the surrounding electric field for signs of possible leader formation, in response to which the actuators would emit a current to charge the aircraft in the appropriate direction. The researchers say such charging would require power levels lower than that for a standard lightbulb.