Japanese Researchers Levitate Train on Cushion of Air

Researchers take a new approach to high-speed trains

5 August 2011
plane train Image: Tohoku University

What do you get when you combine a plane and a train? The answer—it is hoped—will be a fast, efficient mode of transportation, according to IEEE member Yusuke Sugahara and his team of researchers at Tohoku University, in Sendai, Japan. The team has developed a prototype of a planelike train that flies inches above the ground.

The researchers are testing a prototype, which they call the Aero Train. With three stubby wings on each side of a passenger-carrying fuselage, the Aero Train is controlled like a plane but follows a road that’s a little wider than the vehicle, wingtip to wingtip. To deal with pitch, roll, and yaw, Sugahara’s team has focused on building a control system that can stabilize the train. They’re using the prototype to test such a system.

The researchers in May presented a paper on their work, “Levitation Control of Experimental Wing-in-Ground Effect Vehicle along Z Axis and about Roll and Pitch Axes,” at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, in Shanghai.

Sugahara is an assistant professor at the System Robotics Laboratory, which is part of the university’s bioengineering and robotics department. He developed the prototype under the guidance of two bioengineering and robotics professors: IEEE Fellow Kazuhiro Kosuge, who is president of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, and Yasuaki Kohama.


The Aero Train rushes along a track and manages to lift off the ground, thanks to the ground-effect principle, the aerodynamic interaction between the wings and the ground that creates an air cushion. Propellers move the vehicle, which can travel up to 200 kilometers per hour, according to the researchers. That is slower than the Hayabusa bullet train, Japan’s newest and fastest, which travels up to 300 km/hour using metal wheels on metal tracks, or the Maglev train in Shanghai which, relying on strong electromagnets for levitation and forward motion, can go about 430 km/hour. But the researchers say their vehicle has other advantages, such as lower cost, because it and its “tracks” will be relatively simpler to build.

The Aero Train, shown in the video below, hovers several inches above the ground. A scaled-up version would travel in a U-shaped concrete channel, which would give the vehicle a road to follow.

The team still needs to improve the stabilization system (note the way the Aero Train wobbles in the video). If all goes well, however, the researchers say they plan to build a manned, full-scale version about 85 meters long that could seat 325 people. That is still years away, however.

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