Lift vs. Propulsion
Name: Diane M.
Is there a difference between lift and propulsion and if so, what?
At a "Science Olympiad" that our school district recently held, one of the
projects was to create a hover craft using a 4' square of plywood, vinyl
sheeting, and one leaf blower for propulsion.
One of the entries used 2 leaf blowers, one for lift and one for
propulsion. They were disqualified because the judges argued that lift
and propulsion were the same thing.
I also was under the impression that lift and propulsion were not the same
thing, and now my curiosity is killing me. What exactly is lift and what
Incidentally, the winning entry used a leaf blower for lift and a large,
industrial fan for propulsion. That seemed to be a direct contradiction
of the judges' edict that lift and propulsion are one and the same.
Lift is a force that does just that. Lift lifts an object, working against gravity. Propulsion
propels an object, providing whatever forces are necessary to make the object move from here to
there. It is true that lift and propulsion are both forces, but they serve very different
Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Illinois Central College
The difference between lift and propulsion is simply that of direction. Lift and propulsion are
terms we apply to forces. So in the sense that they are both forces, they are indeed the same.
However, we commonly use the word "lift" to mean a force that acts in the opposite direction of
gravity. Gravity is a force that pulls us down, and "lift" is any force that lifts us up.
Propulsion is commonly used as a name for a force that moves us in a direction we want to travel,
or in other words, propulsion moves us forward. However, propulsion also is used to mean the
system that moves a vehicle.
A propulsion system on a hovercraft requires components that provide lift and provide forward
I do not think any argument could be won on what exactly is propulsion and what is not when
dealing with hovercraft. Propulsion is not really a technical term, so it can pretty much be
made to bend any way that is convenient, and with hovercraft especially it does not mean too
Not having a copy of the rules, I cannot say for sure if the judges kept to their rules or not.
But, it definitely sounds like they did not, and their reasoning definitely does not work out.
If the rules simply stated that no more than one leaf blower could be used, then they made the
right decisions because the winning entry only had one leaf blower, but the disqualified one had
two. This has nothing to do with propulsion vs lift however.
If the rules specified that the only means of propulsion could be a single leaf blower, then
they would have had to disallow any vehicle with more than one motor. Which they clearly did
If the rules allowed a single leaf blower for propulsion, and other motors were allowed only for
lift, then winning entry did not do this--the leaf blower was used for lift, not propulsion,
while the disqualified entry did do this.
If they rules stated that only those materials mentioned could be used, then both vehicles
should have been disqualified because both used additional motors.
I hope this helps.
Ultimately, this is going to be a definition of terms, because I do not think there is an "official definition" of the two. I would have
interpreted the "lift" to mean getting the hover craft off the ground and keeping it there and the term "propulsion" to mean getting the hover craft to move parallel to the ground in a controlled manner. Those terms should have been made clear in the project instructions. To that extent the judges showed poor judgement, in my opinion. Having assisted both in the writing instructions and judging of science fairs, one of the things we gave special attention to was, "Have all the terms, limits, and allowed materials been
clearly specified?". Even so, occasionally things were not clear. If there was some "rule" that we had missed we made the decision prior to the event that the contestant was given the benefit of the ambiguity. But again, the decision rests on the definition that the judges make. They are the court of first and last resort usually.
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Update: June 2012