Look Ma, No Hands! Here's How This Supercool Hoverboard Works

The Hendo Hoverboard.
The Hendo Hoverboard is a hovering skateboard that could hit high-tech skate parks as early as next year. (Image credit: Hendo Hover)

If you've ever dreamed of cruising around town on a floating skateboard like Marty McFly does in the classic '80s flick "Back to the Future Part II," then you could soon be in luck.

A pair of innovators is trying to make the futuristic fantasy of riding a hoverboard into a reality. About two months ago, husband and wife design team Jill and Greg Henderson launched a Kickstarter campaignfor their Hendo Hoverboard, a levitating skateboard that could hit "hoverparks" as early as October 2015.

The Kickstarter campaign, which ends Sunday (Dec. 14), has been a resounding success, bringing in well over its initial goal of $250,000 in its first week. With only a couple of days to go in the impressive crowdfunding campaign, the project has already raised nearly $500,000. [Science Fact or Fiction? The Plausibility of 10 Sci-Fi Concepts]

But with all the hype comes an important question: How in the world does this thing work? The basic premise behind the technology is something called Magnetic Field Architecture (MFA), Greg Henderson told Live Science.

MFA is Henderson's term for what others may call magnetic levitation, or maglev, which is already used to power superfast, hovering trainsin Japan, China and South Korea. These trains use magnets to create lift and thrust, and can travel at blistering paces because there is no friction between the train's wheels and axles and the rails.

But the tech behind the Hendo Hoverboard is different from current applications of maglev, for various reasons. The most obvious difference is that, unlike a train, the board doesn't follow a track. Instead, it hovers freely on top of a surface plated in copper.

Copper is what's known as an inductor, Henderson said. An inductor is a metal that isn't magnetic. When you put a magnet near such a metal, an electric current starts to flow in the metal. This current, in turn, causes a magnetic field to develop outward from the metal. If the magnetic field that develops is strong enough, it can levitate the magnet. If it's really strong, it can also levitate any object that happens to be attached to the magnet, including a hoverboard.

To lift a hoverboard and rider, a magnet needs to create a strong magnetic field — something that can be accomplished with the help of electricity. The Hendo board comes equipped with four electrically charged magnets, or electromagnets, which Henderson and his team refer to as "hover engines." These create what Henderson called the "primary magnetic field." When these powerful magnetsare positioned over an inductive copper surface, they're met with a strong repulsive magnetic field from the copper itself that pushes the magnets upward, levitating them.

Of course, the technology behind the hoverboard is a bit more complicated than that. To get the board to remain stable, the Hendo team uses four electromagnets.

"It stays steady because we're using more than one hover engine, and when we do that, it's sort of like trying to balance a unicycle versus a car — one wheel versus four wheels," Henderson said. "It's a whole lot easier with four hover engines." [Hyperloop, Jetpacks & More: 9 Futuristic Transit Ideas]

The exact mechanism that gets all of these hover engines working together to keep the board afloat is at the heart of the Hendo team's Magnetic Field Architecture and, as such, is a company secret. However, Henderson did say that by combining the electric fields created by the hover engines, a more "efficient" magnetic field is created. He also mentioned that in high-performance versions of the board, only two hover engines are used — a feat made possible with the help of alternating magnetic fields.

"I suspect what they're doing is setting up a changing magnetic field in their magnets, and then that changing magnetic field is always inducing another magnetic field in the conductor below it that opposes it and keeps [the board] floating above the surface," said Eric Palm, deputy director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University, who is not affiliated with the Hendo Hoverboard.

Right now, the Hendo board is designed to levitate over copper, but it could also be made to hover over aluminum, as well as a variety of nonmetal materials that are also inductors, Henderson said. The technology behind the hoverboard is also offered in a scaled-back form, as the Whitebox Developer Kit, which is simply a box equipped with the company's signature hover engines.

"We're trying to inspire co-creation across the globe, and we're getting some fantastic responses," Henderson said. The ideas that people have already come up with for the company's hovering Whitebox are "amazing" and "exciting," he said.

Many of these ideas are focused on new innovations in the transportationand health care industries, Henderson noted. But there have also been some novel applications for Hendo's technology, including a hovering turntable for a DJ, in which the turntable spins while the record stays in one place, Henderson said.

"As a scientist, it's really hard for me to know whether this will really turn into something useful or if it's just a cool toy," Palm said. "But it certainly is very cool. I'd love to have one."

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.