Hoverboard Inventor Cites 'Ironman' and 'Back to the Future' Inspiration (Q&A)

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Franky Zapata, a french pilot, racer and inventor of a working hoverboard, talks about the movies that inspired him, the military applications of hovercraft technology and the wonders of being a real-life superhero to his 6-year-old son.

As a kid, Franky Zapata watched Back to the Future more than 100 times. It was his favorite movie and, given the recent news that Zapata has successfully created the world’s first functioning hoverboard, it’s not hard to see why.

We reached Zapata by telephone at his company headquarters, Zapata Racing, in Le Rove, France, just a few miles from Marseilles, and he talked to us about science fiction, the future of hover travel and how movies have always been his greatest inspiration. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

How did you get the idea for the hoverboard?

I was jet ski pilot for about 15 years, so I had a lot of experience around water, and with machines on water. In 2008 I started a company working on trying to make a machine that would be propelled by water but that could fly. This was the original Flyboard. It worked, and we saw that it could fly, that humans could fly. And then we wanted to know if we could fly everywhere, not just on water. That’s how the dream started. There were highs and lows, but we worked really hard.  

How does it work?

The original Flyboard works with water. It used jet ski [engines] and water to propel it. But the new one works with air. It has reactors inside, and there are small jet engines inside the machine. It uses kerosene, like jet fuel in an airplane.

Is it dangerous?

No more dangerous than a car. It’s still a prototype though.

How do you control it?

There’s an algorithm inside that controls the reactors, and there are turbines on the side that control acceleration — four on the outside and two inside. There are four turbo reactors inside. You have to stabilize each reactor and then you control the acceleration with the turbines on the side. There are devices that funnel air into the engine, and then kerosene is injected. There’s a flame, which creates the thrust forward, like a combustion engine.

How do you control things like direction, elevation and so forth?

With your body, like on a snowboard. You want to go right, you lean right, you want to go left, you lean left. I’m passionate about snowboarding, jet skiing. And I had this dream to be able to fly all over. I can go anywhere. I can go to work with it.

How far can you go?

This weekend we went 3 kilometers. The maximum we’ve done is 7 kilometers. You’ll be able to go up to 10 kilometers in the future. So far, we’ve always done it over the sea.

Have you ever fallen in?

Three times. When you fall, you damage the motors and have to repair them. And then there’s the electronics, which are sophisticated. But there’s an automatic life vest, which saves you from drowning.

Were you inspired by the movie Back to the Future?

When I was little it was my favorite film. That and Iron Man. Those are my two favorite films and that’s what inspired me. I was always inspired by films. As soon as there’s a Marvel film, I go see them the same day. In these films, the dreams of humanity you see in them, it’s extraordinary. 

Always Marvel? 

Any kind of science fiction. I love that. It’s an immense source of inspiration. I’m a total fan. It’s a universe. Of course, you can’t get exactly the thing, or be as creative, or make exactly what Hollywood makes, but you can get close. You can’t go Mach 8, like Iron Man, but you can get as close as you can. 

You have a son? 

He is 6. 

Has he flown?

He’s done the water Flyboard. He must be the youngest person ever to fly on one of these. It’s cool to share that in the family. 

So for him, you’re Iron Man. 

He always thought we were superheros. He told everybody at school that his dad could fly and no one would believe him. He’s my biggest fan — it’s great. 

Has the military come calling?

We’ve been contacted by companies. First, we’re going to work with France on how to integrate these projects, to help with international security issues. This is a goal for us. 

And outside France?

It’s confidential for now, but we have demands from everywhere. Shows. Conferences. Companies. We have requests every day. It’s hard to manage it all the time and to do more research. 

What are your other projects?

We’re working on machines that use the same tech and that will allow us to move more freely. The idea is to have a machine that’s easier to use, a machine that’s more stable and easier to learn how to use. 

 What will it look like? 

 Like a motorcycle that flies. Like Star Wars.

Like in Empire Strikes Back

Like on the planet with the Ewoks. With the Flyboard Air, we had such a hard time to stabilize it, so we want to create motorcycles, cars, small planes — we can create everything. 

It’s surprising to me that you’re the first, that big defense companies or governments haven’t made these kinds of devices yet.

They tried. The Americans tried for decades. The best they could do was something over 300 pounds, with bad propulsion. 

How did you succeed where others failed?

I guess we’re not that bad. We know how to fly. I put in more than 1,000 hours with the original Flyboard. It’s like if you want to develop a pair of sneakers but you don’t know how to walk. When I was young, I was a test pilot, so this was a way of combining all my areas of expertise. I could visualize what needed to be done. Engineers don’t always know how to combine the piloting, engineering, experience with flying and everything. And we have the money to do it. We have the right size company to make it happen. So we’re the right size, we have the knowledge, the passion and the money to do it. 

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