Where is the hoverboard?

Since the dawn of time man has searched in vain for many scientific breakthroughs, whether it be the ability to make lead into gold; to travel faster than light; or the secret of younger looking skin.

For sometime now (well 1989, when Back to the Future II came out) one such, as yet, ellusive invention has been of particular interest - it is, of course, the hoverboard. Many questions still remain to be answered: what technology will we need to create this techno-feat? Do we actually need it? And, will we be getting one in time for 2015 as Robert Zemeckis predicted?

However, before we get going, we will need to ascertain what is actually meant by a hoverboard as there are some unscrupulous fellows who would have you believe that they're in existence now. This is clearly untrue. What these folk are referring to is based around the hovercraft, a wonderful invention in itself, but working on entirely different principles - that of air pressure creating lift by way of an engine.

What we're interested in is purely high-tech anti-grav action which will enable you to pull off loads of great stunts and impress all onlookers in your town square.

There were many rumours surrounding the existence of the hoverboard during the 80s, largely propagated by Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis, who, apparently tired of questions regarding the hoverboard SFX in the film, started suggesting that the hoverboard was real and that "Michael [J. Fox] just practised a lot".

These, however, have now been debunked, with hoverboard ownership still just a dream. Or is it? As there have been various strides by companies into researching the technology which would enable us to skip across the cityscape with gazelle-like agility . More about that later.

So what is the nearest we have at the moment? Sadly, these are in no way the hoverboards we seek - since, and we are at pains to admit it to ourselves, at the moment the hoverboard is complete science fiction. There we said it. If we want an alternative, it is going to have to tick at least one of the hoverboard boxes: Does it at least hover? Or can it function on terrain which might prove tricky for a conventional device? Here are a few potential contenders.

The Hoverboard by Future Horizons uses "high performance hovercraft technology to lift a 250lb+ rider 3 inches above the ground". With a 6-horsepower, 4-stroke engine strapped to the back along with a five blade propeller, as you could probably imagine it is not small and it's certainly not quiet.

Controls are in the form of a handheld throttle which enable the driver to adjust rudder position, engine speed and hover height - sounds great for a laugh down the park with your mates (it can apparently achieve speeds of up to 20mph), so not exactly what we're looking for - but a good effort none the less.

Next up we have the AIRBOARD made by Arbortech, which despite not looking like a hoverboard does enable you to hover off the ground at speeds of around 15mph. Not exactly blistering, and contrary to the video it's not suitable for "any terrain" favouring instead "mown grass, asphalt, pavement etc." Still, it's an example of people innovating, which is always welcome despite its looks and girly safety harness.

If this doesn't quite push all the right buttons then maybe we need to look at a device of a more go-anywhere nature, which is where our next board comes in. Produced by Scarper these Scarper boards allow you to race around on all sorts of different terrain and although aren't in any way hover-based look like a hell of a lot of fun and certainly allows for a go-anywhere boarding experience.

There is hope that these will be available sometime in 2010, but at a price, the Scarper could set you back between $2000 and $3000.

So what about potential technologies, which might enable us to fulfil the hoverboard dream? On first glance the Maglev train in Shanghai appears to give us the type of levitation experience that a hoverboard could use.

However, the electromagnetic-based tech that keeps the train off the rails works as active levitation, with the current having to be regulated between the stator and support magnet 100,000 times a second in order to keep the distance the same. This, though, works on attraction of opposite poles and not, as might appear to be the case, on the repulsion of like ones, meaning there isn't a way of applying this particular tech to that of the hoverboard.

In terms of companies that have made some effort to crack the problem of giving us something Biff would be proud to sport, Hovertech is one. It has looked into creating magnetic fields to trap ionized air along with ferro fluid forcefields (basically magnetic particles, which float around in a liquid and get all excited when near a magnetic field).

The upshot of this was that it didn't work, which is precisely what the idea of using geomagnetics didn't do (work we mean) - this idea was that a system could be devised that would repel against the Earth's magnetic field.

Along with these there is the idea of creating some kind of anti-gravity field - which in terms of science fiction is an absolute stalwart. This, however, is looking unlikely as we are still not at all certain how gravity works, which is kind of a pre-requisite to harnessing its power to allow for some recreational hover-time.

However, life is all about compromise and if we do this then there might be some hope for hoverboard enthusiasts.

There was a lecture at St Andrew's University last year which demonstrated a levitation effect using super-conductivity, which could be potentially used as a new form of transport (see the video above at the 4-min and 5.5-min mark).

If this could be harnessed into some kind of hoverboard-based park instead, with some kind of super-conductive surfaced laid out instead of the usual asphalt, hoverboarding could be a possibility - in a purpose built area anyway.

So it looks like we'll have to settle for something more like a cut-down hovercraft for the time being if we're going to get anywhere close to emulating M.J. Fox, and if the hoverboard is created, it certainly doesn't look like it'll be anytime soon - not in time for 2015 anyway. So it's either book your place to the future via a reputable cryogenics company or settle for one of the above - Jennifer may not be impressed but all us other hoverboard geeks out there would certainly give you credit for living the dream as best as you can.

If you enjoyed this article, then head over to our Future Week homepage where you'll find a collection of features on what gadgets will be like in the year 2015.