Hoverboards that actually hover? They’re here

Posted at 7:30 AM, Jan 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-20 09:30:59-05

(CNN) — Have you heard enough about “hoverboards” yet?

Needless to say, the reputation of the two-wheeled toys has suffered a bit of a beatdown — with the reported fires and airline bans.

Jeez, Mike Tyson couldn’t even remain upright on one, and he’s an ex-world champion athlete.

Worst part of the whole debacle: The so-called hoverboards don’t actually hover.

That’s the sore point for Canadian entrepreneur Philippe Maalouf. “I’m watching all these news reports saying ‘hoverboard’ with a straight face — and it’s not,” he said. “I was like, are people aware that this board is not even hovering? It’s on wheels!”

Maalouf has a big reason to be interested. As the CEO at Omni Hoverboard, he’s leading a small team developing a real hoverboard.

One that actually flies.

Imagine standing above tiny helicopter blades as they push you up into the air. That’s the idea behind the Omni.

Last summer, an early version shattered a Guinness distance record of 905 feet. Fascinating video shows the Omni taking flight a few feet above water and kicking up a cloud of vapor and debris.

Maalouf has flown an early version of the machine, and the way he talks about it, it brings you pretty darn close to flying like Superman.

In most flying vehicles, “you feel like you’re riding on the back of a dragon,” Maalouf said. But on the Omni, “you feel like it’s you who’s flying. And that’s new. That’s the innovation.”

Serious flying machines

Let’s be clear about real hoverboards: They aren’t a trend aimed at making a quick buck from a Marty McFly fanboy fantasy.

These are serious inventions being designed by engineers looking to move forward in the worlds of sports, recreation, policing, military and urban transportation.

“Someday, maybe you could commute to work with one of these things,” said Maalouf. “But I think regulation might prevent that.” More likely they would be developed for recreation — the way people use ATVs, he said. They also might be used to inspect bridges or as FEMA rescue vehicles, to pluck people from dangerous floodwaters.

A few tech hurdles still need to be overcome. Power is a big challenge. Hoverboards need a lightweight power system that lasts long enough for the vehicle to be useful. Battery power systems can be heavy. Maalouf said his team intends to power their Omni using gasoline-fueled engines. Look for an official prototype sometime in 2017, Maalouf said. Estimated retail price will be from $25,000 to $50,000.

Another hoverboard-maker claiming some success is aerospace firm Arca. Check out video of the ArcaBoard, a 57-inch-long, 6-inch-thick rectangle that flies on 36 “high power” electric ducted fans. The pilot controls it via a phone app. Slow and low, this thing only grabs about a foot of air and moves about 12 mph, according to its website. Still, ArcaBoard needs a lot of juice, which is why it only flies for six minutes before it needs six hours to recharge.

The ArcaBoard advertises for $19,000. The charger goes for an extra $4,500.

Thinking waaaaay bigger

Hoverboards are just a starting point for Greg Henderson, co-founder of Arx Pax. “The hoverboard is not going to solve the world’s problems,” said Henderson, “and that’s what we’re focused on around here.”

The Silicon Valley-based outfit, which sold 10 Hendo Hoverboards on Kickstarter for $10,000 within 24 hours, wants to go bigger. Henderson wants to expand the basic physics behind the Hendo to help build huge, superfast, superefficient transportation systems.

“Our technology can all share the same infrastructure,” Henderson said. “A single person, or a train with a thousand people could take advantage of this incredibly efficient low-cost, new maglev technology.”

Arx Pax calls its magnetic levitation technology Magnetic Field Architecture. It involves special “hover engines” that float over a conductive surface. Very simply, here’s how it works: The hover engine generates a magnetic field that creates electrical currents in the surface. The magnetic field and the electrical currents push against each other, which allows whatever is riding on it — a hoverboard or a train car — to float above the surface. Floating creates a lot less friction than riding on wheels or rails, which requires less fuel, making this kind of transportation system theoretically more efficient.

When it comes to any radically new transportation system, a big question is how to get communities to embrace it.

Henderson says it could all start with a simple maglev train linking any city’s airport with, say, a conference center, for example.

Once that’s shown to work, the concept could be extended. Henderson hopes Arx Pax technology will be included in entrepreneur Elon Musk’s proposed high-speed Hyperloop transportation system.

Think about retrofitting HOV lanes on highways with conductive surfaces so maglev vehicles could hover over them. “I wouldn’t recommend sharing a hoverboard with a high-speed train — but you could,” Henderson joked.

The meaning of HOV might change from High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to HOV-ER lanes.

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