A Japanese research group looking into ways to build the next generation of high-speed trains has set their sights on ground-effect vehicles, or vehicles that move just fast enough to fly at very low altitudes and use the fast-moving air under them as a cushion to keep them airborne. In this case, when we say “ground-effect,” we don’t mean neon lighting on the underside of the chassis.

We already know a lot about high-speed rail, and in European and Asian countries, high-speed trains are the best and even preferred way to travel long distances. Still, the speed of today’s breed of high-speed trains is limited by the fact that they ride on rails that they’re physically connected to. Trains that use a rail or track only as a guide, and hover or fly over it could potentially travel much faster and farther on less fuel…

This is where Dr. Yusuke Sugahara’s research group at Tohoku University comes in. His team examined the potential of maglev trains, but eventually turned their attention over to ground-effect vehicles. They are controlled much like aircraft, but fly close enough to the ground that the air between the vehicle and the ground acts like a “cushion” of sorts instead of a drag factor. Dr. Sugahara’s team has developed a robot prototype of a vehicle they think could do the trick, and they’ve also come up with an autonomous control system that can pilot the craft.

Controlling ground-effect vehicles can be difficult. In some ways, they’re more aircraft than train, so you have to control their movement in all directions: pitch, yaw, and roll. When the team completes its control system, they want to continue to investigate the feasibility of using ground-effect vehicles to carry cargo and passengers long distances at high speeds. For example, they want to get their prototype up to 200 kilometers per hour (124 miles per hour.)

If the technology looks promising, the future of commuter and passenger trains may be flying vehicles like these. Even if they only get to 200 kilometers per hour, that could give people a way to travel between New York City and Washington DC in just over an hour and a half – a far cry from today’s normally 2-hour or longer train rides.

Read more at IEEE Spectrum