How to hover just a little bit off the ground

In my ongoing quest to consider how to accomplish all sorts of fictional feats fictionally, I must confess to being a little bit stumped by a recurring one. Flying is one thing but hovering just a little bit is a repeated visual indication of futuristic technology. Star Wars in particular is replete with a kind of hovering-a-bit technology that transitions from a handy way for moving heavy object, to vehicles that fly very close to the ground, to presumably the full-on flying vehicles shown on Coruscant.

How best to even describe this? A kind of limited anti-gravity? Intentionally restricted flight? Whereas many other fanciful physical effects in science fiction have clear rules, the limited hover is typically under explored. However, given the command of forces needed for the standard artificial gravity required by space-opera to keep everybody walking around, it makes sense that a kind of limited neutralisation of gravity also makes sense.

We can throw in some rules. Firstly the technology we currently have for hovercraft doesn’t count. The science-fiction hover is noiseless and unobtrusive. It is meant to look effortless beyond maybe a glow or a soft hum. Hovering by the means of big turbines blowing air doesn’t count. Similarly, while it might consume some power, hovering science-fictionally is shown as inexpensive. I think I recall a kind of animal drawn cart in The Mandalorian where the cart itself had not contact with the ground, suggesting a technology that just sort of works once it is up and running.

Likewise, it is technology that doesn’t require special surfaces to work. It is a lot easier to imagine devices being able to hover within the Starship Enterprise because the whole ship must have a highly complex control of gravitational forces (as well as engines that literally warp space). Yet, it is not something we do see within Star Trek. I assume we don’t see it in Trek because it would have been a tricky effect in the 1960s and hence didn’t become a ‘thing’ for Star Trek. For Star Wars, Luke’s speeder appears to hover using a neat practical effect involving mirrors and from that point on hovering became a thing within Star Wars.

Famously, Back to the Future 2 introduced hoverboards as a near-future technology that we were promised but which clearly hasn’t arrived. The hoverboard also lives in this unclear space between something that is almost but not quite a full on flying machine but with an implication of cheapness and simple utility. It’s hard to see how the fictional 2015 could have cheap hoverboards for teenagers without having the same technology everywhere.

Of course magnetic levitation is a real thing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_levitation ) and that also gives a clue for the concept we are looking for. “Levitation” is the concept we are looking for but techniques such as acoustic levitation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acoustic_levitation) don’t really match the kind of science-ficitional levitation we are discussing. Likewise, real-world examples like maglev trains don’t come close to the kind of hovering within the science fiction trope. Optical levitation perhaps has some of the features but it is currently only possible with tiny objects.

Of course, I’m not interested in building an actual levitation device but rather hand-waving at a fictional one.

  • Control over the geometry of space-time. That sounds grand but it is implied by the existence of artificial gravity on space ships. If you can walk around the Millennium Falcon, then there is the technology to manipulate gravity at a very fine level. Quite how that translates to hovering, I don’t know.
  • Scaled up manipulation of fundamental forces. Of course everything in the universe is under the sway of forces that repel and attract. Repulsive forces are what stop everything in the universe just shmooshing altogether. At a fundamental particle level, forces can be attractive or repulsive at different differences. Our levitating slab of frozen Han Solo may be sitting in a sweet spot of altered fundamental forces of nature. Gravity is stopping things from floating away completely but the natural repulsion of matter is operating at an exaggerated scale.
  • It is actual flying. What I mean is the technology for levitating is actually whatever the routine technology for flying is but some how intentionally limited. An engineer can take a screwdriver to one of those Star Wars levitating palettes, switch off a limiter of some kind and have a full on aircraft.


23 thoughts on “How to hover just a little bit off the ground

  1. Scott Westerfelds uglies series has a hover board that seems to work on some kind of magnetic principle, cities are built over the top of metal grids so that they can work, and if you want to go somewhere you have to follow a scene of metal in the ground so the hoverboard can still work.
    They are also solar powered as well.

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  2. Malachi Constant, in The Sirens of Titan, buys a firm that makes magnetically levitating furniture… it doesn’t work awfully well, though. I think his financial advisor tells him that sitting in one of their chairs takes as much concentration and effort as standing up in a canoe….

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    1. Lovely (except for arachnophobes) but it reminds me of a point I missed. The kind of sf Levitation I am talking about is never shown as weightlessness ie levitating stuff is never shown as drifty and blown about by a soft breeze. It has not just mass and inertia but a sort of hefty quality

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      1. A better fit for this would probably be magnetic levitation. Maybe planets in the Star Wars galaxy naturally have much stronger magnetic fields, or they’ve buried powerful high-temperature superconductors under the surface to allow for the levitation effect. Cool video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vxror-fnOL4

        Apparently Japan have been messing about with this stuff for decades too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C5%AB%C5%8D_Shinkansen

        Luckily for the requirement that it must be fictional, our “high temperature superconductors” still need to be drastically cooled in order to function like this, so Star Wars universe still operates on different rules, has strange quirks of nature related to magnetism on its planets or has hyper-advanced superconductors capable of functioning at normal temperatures.

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      2. Don’t mind me – I managed to skip the maglev bit in your original post somehow. I’ll blame the fact that I’m quite sleep-deprived right now thanks to Fire Emblem: Three Houses sucking up all my spare time again. There’s a little bit of magical levitation in there when mages cast spells, dodge or level up, in fact. Also Supersonic (from an entirely different series) floats in a mysterious way when he’s moving super fast, for what I suspect is more rule-of-cool reasons than anything that’s solidly reasoned out.

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  3. How sciencey do you need it to be? There’s plenty of psychic hovering off the ground in various universes that allow that kind of thing (including ‘forgetting to fall’ in the later HHGTG books).

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    1. I believe server-wrangling requires offering a chicken to the server daemons, or so I’ve been told – so I’m with you on the witchcraft angle ๐Ÿ˜›

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  4. I’d say antigravity would be self-limiting, as gravity is a very weak force and diminishes with the square of the distance (or something like that). If we propose the existence of an antigravity field, it could be economic at very short distances to the ground for quite a bit of lift. Increase the levitation altitude and lift capacity decreases rapidly, while maintaining lift power requires, say an increase in power proportional to the cube of the distance.

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      1. If you’re looking for topics to explore, “what would it take to justify underwater cities” might be a nice one. Or even take a further step back and ask “what does it take to justify a city at all?”

        I say that because I read an article a few years back about a big mining operation in a cold part of Canada where one of the issues was thousands of mostly male miners who lived in a huge camp and got lonely for their families. I wondered, “why doesn’t a city form there?” And even “maybe this would be a good place to try out a domed city.”

        And then I realized that the company has zero reason to want a city there. That would just create a political entity that might complain about things. Only the government could decide to put a city there. Anyway, the chain of thought jumps off from there.

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      2. It’s probably not just political issues. Children require infrastructure that adults don’t. If people brought their families then there would need to be schools, vaccination clinics, playgrounds, child care centres etc. These are expensive and the company wouldn’t be getting any additional labour for all these additional costs.

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