I rode a hoverboard designed to save buildings from earthquakes and floods
As I push off for my first time on an actual working hoverboard, the first thought in my mind is not how different it is from how Michael J. Fox did it in Back To The Future Part II — which is obviously just a movie. It’s whether or not I’m going to immediately go face-first into this large, copper-lined floor. It’s also sinking in that this highly experimental skateboard required signing a liability waiver, and that there are several people positioned around me whose sole job it is to make sure I and their $10,000 prototype don’t go flying out of control.
This is the Hendo, the namesake of an inventor named Greg Henderson, and it’s really more of a technology demo than something that’s going to get you to work in the morning. Right now it’s effectively a parlor trick, and it apparently only works in parlors lined with a one of a small set of metals. But Henderson, who co-founded the hoverboard’s parent company Arx Pax with his wife Jill, imagines the technology that’s inside it could become a solution for keeping buildings from getting destroyed in floods and earthquakes by simply lifting them up. They also say that it could serve as a replacement for the systems that currently levitate maglev trains.
hose ambitions are the opposite of humility, but Arx Pax seems like a humble company, situated in a nondescript office park in Los Gatos, California. Also humble: the small square white box that floats just a few centimeters above metal surfaces, designed as a technology demo that will be made available to Kickstarter backers. It’s just like an air hockey table, but in reverse, where a large object is simply floating just a few millimeters above, and adrift. But there’s no air, just a barreling thrum of whatever is going on inside the “white box.” Inside it are a group of what Henderson refers to as hover engines, and the oversimplified explanation of how they work involves a little electromagnetism andLenz’s law. Scale this up a bit and you get the hoverboard I’m on. Go even bigger and you can hold up cars, trains, and even buildings. Or at least that’s the idea.
How that works with a human on top of it is fun, but not elegant. I used to skateboard quite a bit, but hopping on Hendo’s hoverboard is something else. The easiest way to describe it is like getting on a snowboard that’s just been pulled out of an oven. Any sort of lateral control you’d have with a skateboard goes out the window. Instead, you’re floating, and often spinning as your body pushes certain parts of the board, adjusting its direction. “You should just stay on the board and let us push you,” one of the safety attendants says to me after my first few trips across the demo space. I happily agree.
Henderson says the technology is “completely safe,” and that there’s no measurable field strength above it, where whatever’s on top of it is being carried. “It is very safe particularly relative to other forms of maglev,” he adds.
While “completely safe,” it’s far from silent. Where the white box sounded like a loud desktop computer, the sound coming out of the hoverboard prototype is like a high-pitched screech. This will be dampened by the time the company has a more polished version of the hoverboard ready by this time next year, Henderson promises, but for now it’s a cacophony of squeals when you get on. The word “Banshee” comes to mind.
Was it fun? Unequivocally. Pushing off for the first time, and even later runs was a thrill. For the first time ever, I felt like it was OK for some electronic device to have a blue glowing light on it. It’s just too bad there wasn’t more space to ride on. The small demo area actually made it more difficult to get momentum, and stabilize myself as I glided gently into the waiting arms of my spotting team.
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