Once Hollywood sci-fi, small hovercraft are gaining ground in the real world. The U.S. Army is looking at the “world’s first flying motorcycle,” and Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus has built its own hoverboard.
Yet these and other levitating wonders won’t hit the market anytime soon. They still have to undergo safety testing and regulatory scrutiny. And some are simply meant to amuse. Lexus’ new Hoverboard, for example, isn’t the forerunner of a flying car that Toyota says it’s been studying.
“It’s definitely something that works, but it’s not something we plan to sell,” says Lexus spokesman Moe Durand of the hoverboard, unveiled this week in a company video. It uses magnets and liquid nitrogen-cooled superconductors to lift a rider off the ground. So far, it only works when magnets are embedded underneath the road surface.
“It’s really just for an ad,” Durand says, citing the “Amazing in Motion” ad campaign to showcase Lexus’ innovation. Though Lexus didn’t build it as part of a push toward a flying car, he says it could eventually lead in that direction: “Is it dipping our toe in the water? Maybe.”
An increasing number of companies, though, are vying to commercialize their hovercraft. Their prototypes may not look like Marty McFly’s board in the 1989 movie Back to the Future II, but they’re aiming to do all sorts of incredible things—transport troops over difficult terrain, move passengers in Elon Musk’s vision of sonic tubular travel, or even lift buildings to avoid earthquake damage.
Chris Malloy built a helicopter-like Hoverbike in his garage in suburban Sydney, Australia. His website says he “combined the simplicity of a motorbike with the freedom of a helicopter to create the world’s first flying motorcycle.” Now he’s the managing director of Malloy Aeronautics, a company based in the United Kingdom.
“We’re doing a feasibility study for them,” Malloy says of the U.S. Army. He says his craft, which uses propellers to hover, can do search and rescue missions, cargo delivery, disaster relief, and surveillance. Designed to come in manned and unmanned versions, he says it can do what helicopters do—at a lower cost, in tighter spaces, and without pilots.
He declined to give specifics about the project. At the Paris Air Show earlier this month, Maryland Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford announced that Malloy’s company is working to develop the Hoverbike for the U.S. military as a new class of Tactical Reconnaissance Vehicle.
Malloy says he developed the Hoverbike for commercial, not military, use. “We’ve had lots of people who want to place orders,” he says, noting he’s not yet taking them. “We don’t want to hurry our product into the market.”
Technically, he says the company could begin production now, but he needs to do rigorous testing to prove its safety. He expects that could take at least three to five years, and he doesn’t have the market to himself.
“We have competitors,” he says, noting companies in New Zealand and elsewhere with similar prototypes.
Simpler hovercraft are emerging, too. In California, Greg Henderson has built the Hendo, a hoverboard that he says uses one fourth as much energy as a helicopter to lift the same weight. (Find out what it’s like to ride one.) In October, his company Arx Pax plans to debut a new version that’s smaller, lighter, and more powerful.