Swiss electric seaplane maker Jekta made its debut in Abu Dhabi last week as it unveiled the design of an all-electric 19-seater commuter seaplane aimed at transporting people in mega-cities and coastal areas more sustainably and affordably.
The amphibious aircraft PHA-ZE 100, short for Passenger Hydro Aircraft Zero Emissions, is at the design stage, with a prototype scheduled for 2026 before entry into market by 2028, George Alafinov, chief executive of Jekta, told The National.
An amphibious aircraft is one that can take off and land on both solid ground and water.
The start-up is taking advantage of improving battery technology to help transport a growing world population with an appetite to travel safely, cheaply and ecologically.
"The solution is in front of us: instead of building airports with devastating irreversible environmental impact, we can use nature's gift of oceans, lakes and rivers to create an affordable transport system using amphibian aviation," Mr Alafinov said while introducing the PHA-ZE 100.
"Today's seaplane market offers outdated solutions that are heavy on emissions, uncomfortable and extremely costly."
Global transport emissions rose by less than 0.5 per cent in 2019, down from 1.9 per cent since 2000, owing to efficiency improvements, electrification and greater use of biofuels, according to the International Energy Agency.
Still, transportation is responsible for 24 per cent of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, the Paris-based agency found.
Amid growing public awareness and improving electrification technology and infrastructure, Jekta introduced its amphibious passenger aircraft as an alternative to older, noisier and environmentally-damaging models.
Construction of a factory to build the PHA-ZE 100 will start next year at the Swiss Aerospace Cluster in Payerne Airport, located approximately halfway between Lausanne and Bern, Mr Alafinov said.
The Jekta's electric seaplane project will cost €280 million ($279m), including the high-tech and eco-friendly manufacturing facility, he said.
The factory will feature solar panels and geothermal walls to produce electricity and robotised warehousing to speed up production.
The battery-powered amphibious aircraft will be made of composite materials including fibre-glass, carbon and Kevlar, according to Mr Alafinov.
The aircraft model showcased at the Abu Dhabi Air Expo detailed a high-wing layout with 10 electric engines and batteries located in compartments beneath the wing. Mr Alafinov, however, declined to name the electric engine-maker.
The batteries can be quickly changed or recharged within 45 minutes and the aircraft can also be retrofitted with fuel cells, once the technology becomes available, Jekta said.
The seaplane has a 150-kilometre range at a cruising speed of 135 knots, but the design will "future proof" it for a maximum range of 600km to 800km, Mr Alafinov said. The interior will reflect the extended range with the design including plans for a bathroom and a kitchen.
The amphibious aircraft can be executed in passenger, cargo, business and ambulance configurations.
When asked about the jet's pricing, Mr Alafinov said it was "too early" in the seaplane's development to set its selling price.
Jekta's potential markets for its electric seaplane include India, Indonesia and the Philippines in South-East Asia, Brazil in South America and countries in the Oceania region, Mr Alafinov said.
"There's an increase in wealth in South-East Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa, but there's a lack of infrastructure. There's two ways to approach it: either you build infrastructure with huge environmental impact and costs or you use what is already available," he said.
"In current amphibian aviation, there are very disgustingly polluting machines, they pollute with oil, petrol and noise pollution that disturbs nature ... once you move to electrification, you get rid of all of this."
The two-year old start-up has already garnered interest at the Abu Dhabi Air Expo.
Jekta has held discussions with two customers willing to sign letters of intent for the PHA-ZE 100, including an Abu Dhabi-based commercial leasing company and a European seaplane tour operator, Mr Alafinov said, without disclosing further details.
Airlines from Norway, where the government has recently pledged to cut climate-related emissions to at least 55 per cent by 2030, have also held talks with Jekta, it said.
To fund its project, Jekta seeks to first attract private investors, Mr Alafinov said, declining to say how much the start-up is seeking to raise.
After securing 60 per cent of the required funds from private investors, Jekta has agreements in place with European financial institutions to back the project, he added.
In terms of the certification process, Jekta is working with Swiss regulators and the EU's Aviation Safety Agency in parallel with developing the electric seaplane's design, he said.
One of the main challenges in future will be the pressure on the world's electric system, from the use of electrical cars, planes and ferries, Mr Alafinov said.
"The real issue is the physical network of electricity, that is the biggest challenge for the electrification of everything, so countries will need to re-wire all the electrical systems for higher capacity cables," he said.
While developed countries have the financial capability for such an undertaking, it may be a relatively easier task for developing countries who do not have to grapple with older electrical systems, Mr Alafinov said.