What is a Hoverboard?

Since the dawn of time, man has always dreamt about flying like a bird. Even when humanity was living in caves and using tools like stone axes, individuals certainly looked up into the sky and wondered how incredible it would be to fly. Many centuries later, the act of flying began to materialize for human beings. First using hot air balloons, and then, with the turn of the 20th century, primitive flying machines, we as a species gradually mastered the art of being lighter than air and being able to move while in flight. Now, everyone who desires to fly can realize their wish in a multitude of ways, from intercontinental high-altitude flights to individual paragliding and other extreme sports, all of which grant the chance for an individual to take up and reach the skies.

the board and the wheel

But, what about flying closer to the ground, not even meters in the air, but only inches away from the ground? Believe it or not, for several decades now, this idea has also found its way into the collective subconsciousness of the global society. In this case, instead of having wings, a person would only use a board, similar to a skateboard or a surfboard, on which they can stand and then glide effortlessly through the air, suspended just slightly above the ground. This object is called a hoverboard and ever since it first came about as a fictional idea, it has captured the imagination of the entire world. Now, interestingly, many very serious companies and research labs are working hard on creating an actual hoverboard and some of them made significant advances in this domain. But, what is a Hoverboard? Here are the key points about this incredible concept.

The Origins of the Idea of Hoverboard

A hoverboard represents a personal transport and levitation device used by the protagonist in a similar way as a traditional skateboard, minus the fact that it does not have wheels, but instead levitates a few inches away from the ground, even with the rider standing on top of it. The idea was first seen in the film back to the Future Part II that came out in 1989, directed by Robert Zemeckis. Here, the main character called Marty McFly travels to the then future year of 2015, where hoverboards are regular consumer items used by children in the same way as skateboards. The film was a huge success, but it also embedded the idea of a hoverboard in the global culture. Since then, there were numerous rumors about companies developing a hoverboard prototype in the 1990’s, but none actually made any significant advance in this domain.

The Physics of a Real Hoverboard

In the Back to the Future II film, it is never explained how a hoverboard actually works. This is why many wondered, from the perspective of the laws of physics, what is hoverboard? Here, there are several possibilities when it comes to creating a device that could actually levitate. First of all, there is no way of circumventing the basic natural force which keeps all objects that are not lighter than air tied to the ground – gravity. The gravitational pull is one of the main forces of the universe and with it in place nothing can levitate effortlessly like it can in outer space, where the gravitational pulls of celestial bodies are limited. On Earth, however, the pull of gravity means that things cannot levitate on their own. But, using an opposing force that combats the pull of gravity means that some objects could, in theory, levitate more or less stability above the ground. So far, to do this, individual inventors, companies, and research organization tried to employ two types of physical force: air pressure and magnetism.

World's First Real Hoverboard
Tony Hawk Rides World’s First Real Hoverboard – Hendo Hover

Using Air to Build a Hoverboard

Basically speaking, a helicopter employs a force of air directed downwards to create lift and oppose gravity so that the vehicle can fly. In theory, a hoverboard with rotors would be a levitation device which could lift from the ground and fly away in any direction. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the technology to produce small but powerful rotors, along with more potent batteries, allowed inventors to start experimenting with this concept. Soon, the first prototypes of this kind being to emerge, even though the process of constructing and designing them was exceedingly complicated and involved a lot of trial and error experimenting.

How to build a Hoverboard
How to build a Hoverboard

In May of 2015, there was a breakthrough. A Canadian inventor by the name of Catalin Alexandru Duru created a hoverboard that used autonomous power and with it, traveled almost 300 meters over a lake in Quebec. During this distance, he reached the height of 5 meters a finally landed by splashing down into the lake. The Guinness World Records recognized this as groundbreaking and awarded it is the prize for the current record holder. While Duru’s vehicle does not look like the thing people imagine when they think about a hoverboard, technically it is exactly this. But, when it comes to magnetism, people managed to make something that is much more similar to the board Marty McFly uses in the seminal films.

Magnetism, Superconductors, and Hoverboards

In 2015, the Lexus car company asked itself what is hoverboard? Their top engineers set out to find an answer and several months later, they created a video called “Amazing in Motion”. Here, the company presented a fully working hoverboard in the shape of a thick skateboard without wheels. On it, a pro skateboarder produced incredible feats while riding it in a skate park. In the video, the company explains that the hoverboard uses superconductors that are cooled using liquid nitrogen and then placed on a track that is embedded with permanent magnets. A superconductor is an object which has the power to “remember” its position in physical space, relative to a magnetic source and stay in that place as long as its temperature remains very low. With this technology, a hoverboard that is the closest representation to the fictive one from the Back to the Future II was made and most importantly, it is fully functional. At first, the public was skeptical about the news, but once Lexus explained how the technology worked, it was clear that they made a limited but still very much real hoverboard. The downside of the technology is that it requires embedded magnets in the surface on which it can levitate, and also an ample supply of liquid nitrogen that keeps its superconductors extremely cold. But, even with these limits, Lexus still created a piece of wondrous technology.

The Future of the Hoverboard

There is no doubt that the hoverboard will continue to fascinate people and inspire inventors. In the upcoming years, humanity will surely witness many new inventions in the area of hoverboard creation and sooner or later, a device like the one shown in the Back to the Future film will appear on the market, allowing people to own a means of transportation like nothing before it.

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