Jul 8, 2022 - Economy

You might be flying like a pelican in a few years

Rendering of a new type of low-flying aircraft that glides above the water like a pelican

Regent's Viceroy concept would glide above the water, linking coastal communities. Image courtesy of Regent Craft

All-electric "seagliders" could someday offer fast, low-altitude flights in coastal communities like the Hawaiian Islands.

Why it matters: Electric aviation is the next frontier in the movement of people and goods.

  • Better batteries, lighter-weight materials and other innovations — plus huge capital investments — are opening the door to novel and lower-emissions transportation solutions like flying taxis, drones and seagliders.
  • "It's a space race all over again," Billy Thalheimer, CEO of seaglider startup Regent Craft, tells Axios.

Driving the news: Boston-based Regent is partnering with Hawaiian carrier Mokulele Airlines and investment firm Pacific Current to create a seaglider network in Hawaii.

  • Service is expected to begin by 2025 with a fleet of 12-passenger Viceroy seagliders that will fly like pelicans, about 10 to 30 feet over the water, at speeds of up to 180 miles per hour.
  • Hawaiian Airlines recently invested in Regent, with an eye toward building a 100-person version of the craft by 2028.
  • The idea is to offer a cheaper, faster, cleaner alternative to existing ferries and regional air service.

How it works: The seagliders are designed to operate in what's called "ground effect."

  • Put simply, an aircraft flying close to land (or water) experiences less drag and more lift. (Here's a good visual explainer.)
  • Aircraft designers have experimented with "wing-in-ground" (WIG) effect vehicles for decades — the former Soviet Union's Ekranoplan and Boeing's Pelican concept were two examples — but the technology has been difficult to master in choppy seas.
  • New technical innovations will allow vehicles to glide more smoothly across the waves and make the technology more feasible, Thalheimer tells Axios.

Details: Retractable hydrofoils, for example, lift Regent's aircraft out of the water to navigate the harbor on takeoff.

  • Then a series of small propellers on the wings provides the lift for slow-speed takeoffs over a short distance.
  • This so-called "blown wing technology" is also incorporated into the design of efficient new aircraft being developed by companies like Electra.aero.
  • Even DARPA, the Pentagon’s premiere research agency, is working on a WIG seaplane design to potentially replace the giant C-17 Globemaster cargo plane.

Seagliders are neither fish nor fowl — while they fly at low altitudes, they're expected to be regulated by maritime authorities, which could mean an easier path to commercialization, says Thalheimer.

  • Operating a seaglider will be more like driving a boat than piloting an aircraft, he says.
  • And digital controls will manage stability, altitude and the transitions between modes in and above the water.
  • Regent's 12-passenger Viceroy would have a range of about 180 miles, based on existing technology, he says. But as batteries improve, it's expected that future aircraft could go as far as 500 miles.

Yes, but: With $28 million in funding, Regent still has a long way to go. It won't enter full-scale prototyping until the end of 2023.

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