It’s 2015, but we still don’t have time-travelling cars. However, another gadget from the Back to the Future films is within reach: the hoverboard. American startup Arx Pax raised $510,590 on crowdfunding website Kickstarter in December for its Hendo hoverboard, with plans to ship the first in October to 11 backers who each pledged $10,000 for one of the first.
The device uses magnetic-levitation technology: four disc-shaped “hover engines” induce an opposing magnetic field in a special surface, enabling the Hendo to hover an inch above the ground. Hundreds more people pledged between $299 and $949 on Kickstarter for Arx Pax’s “whitebox” developer kit, which includes a set of hover engines and enough surface to hover on. The idea is that they’ll be able to explore Arx Pax’s patented “magnetic field architecture” (MFA) technology, and perhaps make their own devices.
Meanwhile, Arx Pax has its own startling ambitions: using MFA to levitate buildings – from homes to hospitals – to help them escape damage from natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. The hoverboard is a headline-grabbing calling card for its longer-term social goals. “Sometimes the big breakthroughs are as a result of the naive daring of the outsider. And that’s us,” says Greg Henderson, who founded Arx Pax with wife Jill. “We approached this with a social goal in mind: to be able to protect equipment and structures from earthquakes, floods and rising sea levels. The passion that drove all this came from the desire to really make a difference in how we build for mother nature’s bad days.”
He boils down MFA as “a more efficient way to transmit electromagnetic energy”. Arx Pax decided early on that a hoverboard would be the best way to prove the technology, and drum up funding for the company. Initially, Arx Pax relied on the Hendersons’ savings, then investment from “friends and family”. The company chose crowdfunding as its next step rather than seeking money from corporate investors. “There are so many industries and larger companies that could benefit from this, but the real risk was that we would be put under their thumb, and the technology might be shelved because it was competition for what they were doing,” he says.
“We made a conscious decision to go ahead and put it in everyone’s hands, and put it out there as far and wide as possible. This is a new tool for humanity. We can solve a lot of problems with this technology: it’s an obligation to share what we’re doing with the world.” Within Arx Pax, Hendo Hover has been given a clear brand identity. Henderson says the company won’t be hovering skyscrapers in the immediate future, but suggests smaller-scale applications like the ability to flip a switch to levitate computer servers or even wine racks – the August 2014 earthquake in South Napa, California cost vineyards an estimated $80m – as being closer. In the meantime, there’s a hoverboard to finish and ship.
The company is planning to present the first 11 purchasers with theirs on 21 October – “Back to the Future day”, after the date made famous in the film – and Henderson says it’s already fielding interest from skateboarding parks in installing the necessary surface.
Answering critics will be another task: Henderson concedes there are still doubters unconvinced by Arx Pax’s technical explanations and demo videos: “The greatest opposition comes from folk who don’t think we’ve earned the right to put this out there, because we aren’t going through the rigorous peer review process that the scientific community has.
“But the human resistance to change is the real obstacle. The idea that, if something was a good idea, someone else would already be doing it. If it weren’t for people who had the guts to try something new, we’d all still be living in caves! The real enemy is the wilful ignorance of the troglodyte.”
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