Look, over there! Speeding across the countryside on a cushion of air! It's a commuter train! No wait, it's an airplane. It's a … train-plane! 

Whatever you want to call it, it could be the future of commuting.

At the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Shanghai, a team of Japanese researchers from Tohoku University unveiled a prototype of the Aero-train, a free-flying, robotic train-plane that levitates on a cushion of air.


Essentially, the drafts of the future craft look much like an airplane, complete with four stubby wings (two on each side), a tail fin and two propellers that allow it to fly inches from the ground.

Because it handles like a plane, incorporating pitch, roll and yaw, besides the throttle, reluctant future passengers will be reassured that the research team, led by professor Yusuke Sugahara, has built a prototype that stabilizes all three axes.

For more stability, and to kept it from careening out of control, the Aero-train travels in a U-shaped concrete channel.

So far, the team's small, six-winged prototype successfully skimmed along a runway. Researchers hope to use data gleaned from the robotic prototype to build a manned experimental prototype that can travel 125 miles per hour.

China's Shanghai Maglev Train already zips around the country without relying on rails, instead using high-powered electromagnets to levitate the train as it zooms across the track at 268 miles per hour.

Although this rail-less technology cuts down on the friction that leads to lost energy, MagLev trains still create wind drag between the track and the bottom of the train, making them less efficient and more costly.

The Aero-train's concept actually embraces this wind drag, using the ground-effect principle's fast-moving air beneath the train to propel it down the track.

Credit: Ground Effect Transportation System