Science Channel - InSCIder

3 Apr

A Real Version of Marty McFly's Hoverboard?

If you're a fan of the Back to the Future movie trilogy of the 1980s and early 1990s, you undoubtedly remember that when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels to the year 2015 in the second movie in the series, he discovers something more state-of-the-art--a hoverboard, which floats above the ground. From YouTube, here's the scene. Notice that Marty's new nemesis Griff (Thomas F. Wilson) also has one, a macho version with a pitbull emblazoned on the board. You always wanted one of those, didn't you? I did.

I was reminded of this when Griff's hoverboard recently turned up on eBay, where it's being offered for the bargain price of $9,995. (There already have been a number of presumably lower offers, all declined by the seller.)

The drawback, of course, is that the hoverboard is just a prop, rather than an actual working hoverboard. Back in 2001, when inventor Dean Kamen was on the verge of announcing what he promised would be a revolutionary new transportation device, there were rumors across the webisphere that he had developed an actual working hoverboard. Instead, to our disappointment, he gave us the Segway.

The movie's director, Bob Zemeckis, joked in a 1989 interview that that hoverboards actually had been around for years but that protests from parents' groups about safety had kept them off the market. According to Snopes.com, that led would-be hoverboards to inundate toy maker Mattel with calls, in an effort to find out if and when hoverboards would go on sale. 

So when are we going to get an actual hoverboard? Well, probably not by 2015, the date envisioned in the movie. As Zemeckis explained: 

A hoverboard is a board that hovers on magnetic energy. And it works just like a skateboard except that it doesn't have any wheels and you don't have to have any pavement.

That makes it sound a bit like a maglev train, a technology that employs powerful electromagnets to make trains float over tracks rather than roll, thus reducing friction and allowing for super high speeds. There have been a few small, demonstration maglev train lines built already; in Shanghai, for example, one currently transports travelers between the city and a nearby airport at a speed of 250 miles per hour. One thing that's cool about the Shanghai maglev is that it can float in a motionless position, though only 10 to 15 centimeters over the track.

But unlike a maglev train, which floats over a track with magnetized metal coils, a hoverboard would have to be able to float over ordinary ground, aspalt or water (that is, if it's going to be able to perform the manuevers depicted in the movie). So a hoverboard probably isn't going to utilize magnetic power.

I'm wondering if riding on an air cushion, in the fashion of marine and amphibious hovercraft, might be a viable alternative. There already is a single-rider air hovercraft called the Airboard on the market, which is available from various Web retailers for around $15,000 (only slightly more than the Back to the Future prop).

 

Even so, I don't think it can do the sort of manuevers that Marty McFly performs in the movie, and it's a lot bigger and bulkier--more like a jetski than a skateboard. And as this Gizmodo article notes, it won't work over water, sand, or ground with a lot of stones.

So I think that to get anywhere close to an actual hoverboard of the Back to the Future variety, we're going to need  antigravity propulsion. And unless you believe the conspiracy theories about the U.S. goverment secretly possessing technology captured from Nazi scientists during World War II, we're nowhere close to having that.

So what do you think about hoverboards? Are they a realistic possibility for the future, or just a movie fantasy? Express your opinion below.

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