Since last fall, it’s been tough to get thru a regular day without at least one mention of hoverboards. As it turns out, these alternative transportation vehicles were on the 2015 list of Most Sought After Christmas Gifts right after drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
As hoverboards have grown in popularity, some think that they have the potential to revolutionize personal transportation. They are not only popular in the United States, but just about everywhere else. Some members of the Hollywood crowd (e.g. Jamie Foxx, Justin Bieber, John Legend, etc.) have adopted them as COOL fun toys. Unofficial spokespersons from the music and entertainment industry’s A-list has increased product publicity and sales.
The technology that powers these boards, electric gyroscopes, has been around a while. The hoverboard unit has two pressure-sensitive footpads that control your speed and allow you to steer with your feet. The board begins to move when you step on it. This also makes the unit a bit tricky to mount and dismount. The two-wheeled unit reminds me of a stripped down Segway without the vertical column and handle bars.
If you are in the market for alternative personal transportation, some benefits of hoverboards include a lighter, cheaper and jazzier design than the heavier, solid Segway. Their price tags start from about $200 for the el cheapo models, but expect to pay from $400 to $1800 for better brands. Compare these prices the average cost of $5,000 for a Segway.
Unfortunately, these boards have also been in the news lately because a few have caught fire while being charged or when being ridden. Others have had issues with smoke coming from the wheels or the battery unit. Regrettably, these units have been responsible for at least two home fires. During the last few weeks of 2015, news accounts of hoverboards smoking or exploding and catching fire while being ridden led to bans or restricted use by cities, airlines, high schools, colleges and universities, shopping malls and other places. Amazon and Overstock moved to discontinue sales of some of the brands and/or models that they were selling.
It appears that the lithium ion batteries that are included in the base of the product can overheat and explode under certain circumstances. Some reports suggest that these faulty batteries are an issue particularly with cheap, generic boards under $300. As a result, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating this product across all brands. [Ref 1] Other issues associated with these batteries are the charging unit and the design of the battery housing within the base of the unit.
Another problem that has developed from the use of these boards are more doctor visits and trips to the emergency room. I’ve watched several news clips of Mike Tyson falling flat and backwards onto the floor of one of the rooms in his home. He appeared to have survived the fall intact, but that certainly can’t be said for so many others.
At this point, I’ve referred to these two-wheeled alternative transporters as hoverboards. However, they actually don’t hover – or suspend themselves in air for a period of time. They are actually self-balancing scooters. In her CNET article, Sarah Mitroff also refers to them as explosions waiting to happen.
They are also often referred to as adult toys, but they are not regulated as toys that are designed for children to play with by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. If they were, the federal government would most likely have stepped in with an immediate ban on all products until more information was known about the fire and smoking issues that some consumers have experienced.
If your idea of a hoverboard is one that you saw in the movie Back To The Future, then I’m with you. In fact, I’ve been hearing about hovercrafts for the past 18 years as a part of my volunteer involvement with the Future City Competition Arizona Region. Hovercrafts include hoverboards, and recent news informs us that there are, at best, a handful of prototypes on the drawing board. As far as I know, there are currently no manufacturers that are selling hoverboards as a consumer product.
A demo of a product was provided by Hendo (Arx Pax). IFLScience reports that the product only hovers a couple of centimeters off the ground, and is a little wobbly. It also only works on surfaces composed of non-ferrous metals such as copper or aluminum. It is, however, a very big step into the future.
More interesting, in May 2015, a Canadian inventor and engineer, Catalin Alexandru Duru, traveled a distance of 275.9 meters (905 ft. 2 in.) by hoverboard on Lake Ouareau, Quebec – over five times longer than the previous hoverboard flight record. Standing atop a propeller-based, drone-like prototype, Duru was lifted to a height of about 5 meters (15 ft) above the surface of the lake. [Ref 3] Duru set a Guiness World Record for this feat. The future is here!
Lexus introduced a board that is constructed from an insulated core containing high temperature superconducting blocks (HTSBs). These are housed in cryostats – reservoirs of liquid nitrogen that cool the superconductors to -197°C. The board is then placed above a track containing permanent magnets. When the board is cooled to its operating temperature the track’s magnetic flux lines are ‘pinned’ into place, maintaining the hover height of the board.
It is expected that more work and enhancements will be made by companies that produce the self-balancing scooters as well as hoverboards.
In closing, as far as I know, there have only been bans on some self-balancing scooters, but none yet so far on hoverboards. Here’s to the future of hovering!
- Before you even think of buying a hoverboard, read this, by Sarah Mitroff for CNET, December 18, 2015, http://www.cnet.com/how-to/buy-a-hoverboard/
- Watch Tony Hawk Ride A Real Hoverboard, by Justine Alford in IFLScience, November, 18, 2014, http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/watch-tony-hawk-ride-real-hoverboard.
- Working Hoverboard Sets New World Record, by Morenike Adebayo for IFLScience, May 28, 2015, http://www.iflscience.com/technology/guinness-world-record-broken-farthest-hoverboard-flight