You might be flying like a pelican in a few years
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.