How Hoverboards Will Work

By: Kevin Bonsor
The Airboard is the first commercially-marketed single-person hovercraft.
Photo courtesy Arbortech Industries

There's a great scene in the movie "Back to the Future: Part 2" where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is being chased by a gang of hooligans on hoverboards. In the movie, these hoverboards look like flying skateboards that have some sort of magnetic propulsion system. They don't look like conventional hovercraft at all, but the hovercraft depicted in that movie served as an inspiration to Kevin Inkster, who has invented the world's first commercial hoverboard scooter, called the Airboard.

The Airboard will operate just like any other hovercraft, which is basically a vehicle that is supported and propelled by a cushion of air. Developers of the Airboard say it will initially be available at theme parks later this year, but you may have already seen it. If you watched the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics, Inkster showed off his space-age looking Airboard by riding it around the Olympic stadium.


In this edition of How Stuff WILL Work, we'll take a look at this new mode of transportation and see how the Airboard differs from traditional hovercraft.

Hovercraft Basics

It's really amazing how simple a hovercraft is. In fact, you might have all of the components for building a simple hovercraft in your house right now. Whatever components that you don't have can be purchased at a local hardware store. Here's a list of everything you need to put together a homemade hovercraft:

  • Leaf blower or vacuum cleaner that can reverse its air flow
  • Large piece of plywood
  • Large piece of plastic
  • Small section of PVC piping
  • Contact cement
  • Staple gun
  • Electric drill
  • Skill saw
  • Plastic can lid
  • 1-inch bolt and nut

This Web site walks you through all of the steps of building a simple hovercraft. Children should ask for their parent's permission before attempting to build a hovercraft on their own.


When you've finished your hovercraft, you should have a vehicle that has a piece of plywood skirted with a piece of plastic and a vacuum cleaner or leaf blower sticking through a hole in the plywood so it can blow air underneath the craft. When you turn the motor on, the plastic skirt will fill up with air and the hovercraft will rise off the ground. Depending on how airtight it is and how much air is discharged into the skirted chamber, it will rise several inches to a couple of feet above the ground. It's really pretty cool, if it's done right.

Commercial hovercraft operate just like your homemade hovercraft. They usually have an oval or rectangular platform, a motorized fan and a large skirt material to trap the air underneath the vehicle. This air cushion underneath the hovercraft is called the plenum chamber. This plenum chamber is formed by the bottom of the craft and the skirt material. The air flowing into the plenum chamber will form a ring of air circulating around the base of the skirt to insulate the air cushion from the lower pressure air outside the skirt. This ring of air keeps the air under the craft from escaping.

Most large hovercraft have a large propeller attached to the back of it to propel it forward. Rudders attached to the propeller's housing allow drivers to steer the vehicle. On some smaller hovercraft, steering is performed by the driver leaning left or right. Steering a hovercraft is a little tricky: There's no contact with the ground, so steering the craft will feel slippery. In order to stop the vehicle, you just have to slow down the engine and the craft comes to a rest on the ground. One problem with driving a hovercraft is that the faster you go, the harder it is to maintain the cushion of air underneath the craft.


The Airboard

The Airboard is just a small version of a conventional hovercraft that is ridden standing up. It uses the same air cushion principles to glide just above the ground. However, there are some differences between a conventional hovercraft and the Airboard. For instance, the Airboard is unable to hover over water like other hovercraft, and it uses a drive wheel, which touches the ground, to accelerate. Here's a look at all of the components that make up the Airboard:

  • Engine and fan - Suspended under the Airboard shell to provide the air cushion and thrust
  • Airboard shell - The fiberglass platform used for the rider to stand on
  • Rubber skirt - Used to form an air cushion under the vehicle
  • Friction drive wheel - A wheel that comes into contact with the ground to provide added acceleration

The fan underneath the shell of the vehicle provides both a cushion of air and a stream of air that exits through the back of the vehicle to provide thrust. To accelerate, the rider shifts his or her weight forward to allow more air to exit the back of the vehicle. By shifting backward, the rider will activate the drive wheel. The drive wheel actually contacts the ground to move the Airboard forward. Conventional hovercraft don't use any type of a drive wheel.


Controlling the Airboard is done by shifting your weight from side-to-side, similar to how you would ride a skateboard or surfboard. By varying the amount of weight transfer, the driver can make the vehicle turn sharply or softly. Sliding and 360-degree turns are also possible. To ensure the best steering performance, riders are recommended to be at least 5 feet (1.3 m) tall and about 14 years old. Airboard's developers believe young adults have the sufficient amount of weight to safely control the vehicle.

The Airboard should be ridden on level ground, but can glide over many surfaces, including grass, concrete, asphalt and packed dense materials such as salt pans. The developers say it shouldn't be ridden over loose or littered surfaces, where debris could be lifted into the air stream. And, while it can ride over wet surfaces, it cannot ride over bodies of water because of its limited air-generating capacity.

In traditional hovercraft, drivers simply stop the engine and the vehicle slowly comes to a rest. This new hoverboard vehicle works the same way. In order to stop, you simply release the levers on the handlebar, at which point it will slide to a stop. Leave yourself a few meters to stop. It's also possible to stop faster by using a sliding turn.

Arbortech says that the Airboard will only be available in select locations at first. Initially, you will find these devices at theme parks.

For more information on hoverboards, the Airboard and related topics, check out the links on the next page!