Pneumatics and Roller Coasters: Why These Systems Are More Thrilling Than You Thought

When the average person pictures pneumatic presses, they might think of an industrial manufacturing application that they never really get a chance to see in action. And that may often be the case, considering that pneumatic press machines often do work “behind the scenes” to make the products we use on a daily basis. pneumatic systemsBut while you may think pneumatic press uses are rather mundane, the reality is that we have pneumatics to thank for some of the most exciting attractions we experience. That’s right: they’re frequently used in our favorite roller coasters and thrill rides at amusement parks all across America.
The origins of pneumatic systems can be traced back to the 18th century, but they’re still being used today in many of the most beloved theme park rides. Let’s take a closer look at the hidden ways pneumatics allow us to experience so much fun.

Where You Can Find Pneumatic Systems in Coasters and Thrill Rides:

Even before the actual ride begins, pneumatics are at work. When the coaster train comes close to the loading station, there are usually gates that make sure you can’t enter the attraction prematurely. But suddenly, when the time is right, the gates open all at once. This simultaneously timed opening is thanks to a pneumatic cylinder system. It’s a very sophisticated system in that the pressure is precisely controlled so that the gates can open completely but that this is done in a gentle way.
Once you enter the ride and sit down, you’ll be restrained in some way into the seat. There may be a traditional method like a seat belt, but there will also be something like a lap bar that keeps you in place. The lap bar is held in place via a mechanical system, but the release of the lap bar is typically due to pneumatics. The restraints are released or locked in the loading and unloading station when the cylinders break or complete the circuit. While there is typically a mechanical override system set in place, your ability to be secured and released before and after the ride is usually attributed to a pneumatic system.
Traditionally, air brakes could be found in just about every roller coaster. These brakes utilize pressurized air in a way that’s mimicked in other types of pneumatic presses. However, those types of brakes aren’t as popular today. You’ll often find magnetic brakes in today’s coasters — but pneumatics still play a part. Strong magnets are used to bring a car to a stop, but these magnets are so powerful that they need to be physically removed so that the train can move forward into the loading station after passengers exit the ride. Pneumatic technology is used to move those magnets away, allowing the train to progress and be loaded all over again.
But pneumatic cylinders are used for more than rider safety. They can actually add to the overall experience of the ride, as well. Pneumatic cylinders may be used to create the illusion of wind, speed, or a sense of being launched into the air. Dark rides often employ the use of pneumatics to create a unique sensation of motion or wind (for example, on Epcot’s “Soarin'” ride). Although it may seem like a menial component, this effect can really make an impact when it’s used in culmination with small motions, sound, and other components. Pneumatics, in the form of air actuators, are also used in animatronic figures. The use of a pneumatic system can even make up for a lack of speed and movement in general, making a ride much more realistic and immersive.
And if you don’t love traditional roller coasters but still love a thrill, you can experience pneumatic systems on drop tower rides. Compressed air systems are used to propel the ride carriage upward and then released from tubes in specific increments to “drop” the carriage. Then, compressed air is used to cushion the carriage when it reaches a certain point.
Next time you go to an amusement park, you might look at some of your favorite rides a little differently. You might be even more amazed by the pneumatic systems than by the rides!