Thirty years ago, the movie Back to the Future Part II predicted that by October 21, 2015, we would be getting around on hover boards. Well, here we are, and while we now have Segways and the technology for self-driving cars, there are still no hover boards in children's closets.
Miami University's 2014 Kinetics Festival featured something close. Students created a saucer-shaped hovercraft that could hold up to 250 pounds. WVXU's Tana Weingartner spoke with Tim Cameron, Miami University professor and chair of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, about when we might actually see real hover boards.
TW: What is a hover board, as envisioned in the movie Back to the Future Part II? Not talking about those two-wheeled, handlebar-free Segways.
TC: It’s a freely-suspended board about the size and shape of a skateboard that hovers in the air.
TW: You can technically make a hover board, that’s correct?
TC: Not of the size and shape of a skate board. But yes, you can make a craft that floats on air. The technology that’s envisioned in the movie is very quiet and very smooth. The technology we have for hovercrafts has to blow air downward to create lift upward. It’s noisy, it takes a lot of power, and it’s somewhat hard to control, but it does exist.
TW: So how far away are we from harnessing all of those technologies to actually having what’s envisioned in the movie?
TC: We’re a long way away from having something that could be as smooth and as safe as what’s envisioned in the movie.
TW: As a mechanical engineering professor, how bummed are you about that?
TC: Well, I’m kind of excited that the technology even exists. What I would like to see is safety factored in. A board that has the abilities like a Segway to balance you when you’re tipping over. A board that has the capabilities, maybe, of the self-driving automobiles that can detect obstacles around you and avoid them. All of the underlying technologies for doing that exist. The challenge is getting lift that is quiet and safe and with a power density that can lift you up in a small space, on a small board.
TW: Is that something that people are working on now or is this more of a pipe dream?
TC: You can actually watch a video that Lexus has put together, using superconducting magnets, of a true hover board. It actually hovers in air. It’s the size of a skate board. But it requires liquid nitrogen-cooled superconducting magnets in the board itself. And then the track that it runs on has to have permanent magnets in it. [Editor's note: You can watch the video below.]
TW: So you’d have to have a track?
TC: To do it magnetically, you would have to have a track, yes.
TW: So that may not be feasible. Although, we here in Cincinnati are getting a streetcar and that has a track, so maybe it is feasible…
TC: Sure, yeah. It’s definitely feasible. The permanent magnetic tracks actually are not the hardest part, in my opinion. It’s the liquid nitrogen-cooled superconducting magnets needed in the board itself.
TW: That does not sound inexpensive at all…
TC: No, no. It takes expensive materials and expensive processes. It takes rare earth metals to make the magnets and it takes a lot of energy to super-cool the nitrogen to create the superconducting magnets.
TW: Is there any other technology in the movie that you’d like to “ruin” for us?
TC: (laughter) Well, travel to the future is still probably not envisionable at the moment. But the levitation, I think it is. Magnetic technology is improving. Battery technology is improving. Right now you could create – it would not be anything close to what’s portrayed in the movie – but you could have self-flying copters that could suspend a person in air. You could travel through the air. You’d probably have some kind of multiple-propeller contraption above you to create the lift. But air-suspended travel is certainly done regularly and safely for millions of miles in aircraft and the technology for doing it on an individual basis exists already.
TW: Very well, we’ll leave it at that. Professor Tim Cameron of Miami University thanks so much for speaking with me.
TC: Thank you, it was my pleasure.