According to Back to the Future II, 2015 was supposed to be the year we got the hoverboard. Instead, it was the year the hoverboard became a disappointment. A number of companies tried to rush out a version of the sci-fi creation that lived up to the film, only to fall short. Even worse, people started calling things hoverboards that clearly don’t hover.
Arca Space Corporation has now revealed its take on the new form of transportation—the ArcaBoard—just in time for the new year, but can it renew our excitement or will it simply be a way to jump the shark without wheels?
It sure seems like the latter.
The New Mexico based aerospace company dropped a video showing off its achievement in engineering, just before Christmas. It’s the typical hype video that has accompanied the numerous boards that came before it, including Lexus’ liquid nitrogen-powered board and Hendo Boards’ Tony Hawk-endorsed creation.
What separates the ArcaBoard—aside from the surprisingly serious tone of the video—is that it does seem to truly be a board that can ride anywhere; most of its competitors require a special surface to actually work. “ArcaBoard is powered by 36 electric ducted fans that together generate more than 272HP and enough thrust to easily lift a person of the ground,” Dragos Muresan, Vice President at ARCA Space Corporation, told the Daily Dot. Each engine is powered by its own set of batteries independently, and it is intended to produce enough speed to propel the rider over any surface, including water according to the company’s site.
The impressive power packed into the board perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given the company’s history; Arca successfully launched a rocket as a part of the Ansari X Prize Competition in 2004, built world’s largest solar balloon in 2006, and took part in the Google Lunar X Prize Competition before dropping out in 2013. The company also launched a drone, the AirStrato, last year.
Safety seems to be a top concern for the vehicle. The fans are covered by a thin, protective grill to prevent any accidental toe losses, and the board’s top speed is capped at about 12 miles per hour, though Muresan said that it “can reach a very high speed.”
However, you won’t get too far on it even at your top speed. The board is packed with 72 lithium polymer batteries, which will provide a rider weighing about 175 pounds with six minutes of ride time. To charge the batteries to their full capacity take six hours, Muresan said a special charging dock can provide a full charge in 35 minutes.
From the looks of the preview video, those six minutes of air time might be spent hovering in place. Though the board is modeled after a skateboard, its wide build makes it difficult to get a foot on the ground while standing on the board and directing its movements appears to be a challenge.
“It is controlled in a similar way to a helicopter, that is by tilting the board and directing the thrust opposite the direction of travel,” Muresan explained. “It has a built in stabilization unit that can keep the board level and can be controlled from a mobile phone application.”
The stabilization feature can be turned off and the board piloted manually, with the rider redistributing their weight on the board; putting the board at an incline accelerates and doing the opposite decreases speed. Muresan said the videos posted only show the board in manual mode. He said the control method “takes a little time to get to know the board and how it responds to your handling, but is “very intuitive.” He claims that users “can learn how to ride it faster than you would learn how to ride a bicycle.”
The ArcaBoard is definitely a hard sell, and that’s before you get to the price point; Arca is asking $20,000 for pre-orders for the board (and $4,500 for the additional charging dock). The company will start shipping the board in April 2016, assuming it finds some buyers with a lot of disposable income and not far to go.
Muresan said his company will do everything it can to bring the price down, and it “keep in mind that this is the first model.” He admitted the board had a long way to go still. “There are a lot of areas we can improve. Also the technology is always getting better. The batteries are getting lighter and less expensive, the electric motors are getting more efficient,” he said.
So why would Arca ask for such a big investment for something that admittedly isn’t anywhere near its potential? Muresan compared the ArcaBoard to the first mass-produced car. “Not many people could afford it. But with mass production and better technology it became extremely affordable,” he said. “It’s the same situation for ArcaBoard. It could not be done 20 years ago simply because the technology could not permit it. Now it’s possible. It’s expensive and we don’t deny it. But we will do our best to make it more and more affordable.”
When Ford’s Model T debuted in 1908, it was priced at $825—about $20,000 in 2015 when you account for inflation. Odds are Arca isn’t the next Ford, but it’s hard not to appreciate the symmetry Muresan has created by pricing the ArcaBoard at an equivalent price.
It’s hard to tell at this point if ArcaBoard is something truly groundbreaking or just another half-hearted attempt at fulfilling the promise filmmakers made on a lark in 1989. The appeal of a hoverboard is easy to quantify because we’ve seen we think they should work on film, but every version reality has provided falls well short of those expectations.
Maybe it’s because the technology just isn’t there yet and ArcaBoard is the first true step toward developing a worthwhile, futuristic means of travel. Or maybe hoverboards just aren’t that good of an idea in the first place and no matter how far technology advances, it can’t quite match movie magic.