Anywhere else in the world, the idea of flying boats would sound like science fiction. But not in Dubai.
The city, well known for its futuristic vision and innovation, is aiming to shortly add vessels that move above the water rather than on it.
Bringing that plan to life is Frenchman Alain Thebault, the founder of Swiss start-up The Jet ZeroEmission and a world sailing speed record holder.
After dreaming as a teenager of making a boat fly, he eventually stopped his studies to make it come true, Mr Thebault told The National in an exclusive interview.
“I created two electronic prototypes five years ago,” he said. “I took Prince Albert of Monaco on a flight and afterwards he said, ‘Alain you are a genius but you need to design bigger and faster and hydrogen powered'.
“And so I sold that start-up and we created a new one, The Jet ZeroEmission.”
He describes The Jet as a mixture of an America's Cup boat and an electric bus. Powered by two hydrogen fuel cells, it will carry six to eight passengers at a cruising speed of 30-40 knots (64-74 kilometres an hour).
The boat is fitted with vanes, or foils, that lift the hull clear of the water, creating a smooth, quiet, low-resistance and fuel-efficient ride.
“I deliver and create boats and will deliver The Jet in Dubai in one-and-a-half years,” he said. The vision is to offer a trip in the boat from one end of Dubai to the other by the end of 2023.
Contrary to earlier reports that The Jet would be manufactured in Dubai, it will initially be assembled in Italy by Persico Group.
“We are really undertaking a big transformation, which is going to create a revolution in the world of mobility in sea, lakes and rivers,” said The Jet ZeroEmission's chief executive Pascal Armoudom, formerly a chief strategy and innovation officer at Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund.
“The reason we believe this is going to happen is because the same [zero emission mobility] has already taken place on the ground with electric vehicles such as Tesla and others. In space and the aviation sector [as well], we are seeing start-ups developing low carbon emissions planes, so it’s obvious that a similar move is going to take place on water.
“There are other projects presenting similarities, but if you look at the different technical and positioning characteristics, [we are different]. We are fully hydrogen and we have two fuel cells, which means greater speed and [it also] helps for the range and autonomy. We have a short time for charging and we are iconic in terms of design.”
Both Mr Thebault and Mr Armoudom stressed that The Jet is aimed at the luxury sector.
“We would like to become the green Bentley of the sea — a sustainable vessel with zero emissions and zero noise. It’s about an experience,” said Mr Armoudom.
He added that mass transportation is not in the current plans for the vessel.
“Whether in the near future and [or] through partnerships we potentially move down the ladder or the pyramid, you have to start [small]. You are not going to change the technology or all of the parameters such as size, power etc at the same time, so we are starting with smaller vessels and addressing luxury use cases.
“The first one will be made in Europe, and then we’ll see if the market gets bigger in the UAE. Then we could potentially produce in the UAE.”
Work on the first boat is due to begin in September and will take 10 to 11 months to complete. The company is tight-lipped about how many boats it wants to manufacture a year or how much each one will cost.
“We want it to be exclusive and it’s a nice positioning so we don’t want hundreds or thousands of boats around the world. We want to start with a few, [to get the] best results in the best parts of the world. We want to establish a brand,” said Mr Armoudom.
Dubai is very much part of its plans due to both its business environment and its geographical location.
“We love Dubai because it has the right ecosystem and it has an appetite for innovation,” said Mr Armoudom. “The environmental conditions [are great] with the sea being accessible and not too hectic. From a client and financial investor's perspective, the ecosystem is ideal.”
The company has secured part of the required funding of €10 million ($11m). It continues to raise funds and is keen to have discussions with potential investors.
As with any form of transport, safety is a vital aspect. Mr Thebault is well aware of what it's like to travel on the water at high speeds after his experiences aboard the record breaking L'Hydroptere sailing hydrofoil. It broke the 50-knot barrier, sustaining an average speed of 51.36 knots over a stretch of 500 metres, in 2009.
The Jet will have one pilot and a crew member and will be controlled with two iPads which can adjust the height it stands at while travelling across the water.
“We know how to deliver a safe boat with certification,” said Mr Thebault. “At speeds of between 35 and 40 knots, there is no risk, and if it was 15 knots you were travelling at, you might as well take a bike. Dubai is perfect to start as [the waters are] flat and calm.”
Clean and renewable energy is a strategic priority for the UAE, with the country aiming to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. As part of its push into new energy sources, the UAE is also seeking to capture about 25 per cent of the global hydrogen market.
Amid the energy transition away from fossil fuels, new modes of zero-emissions transport and innovations to support alternative fuels have proliferated in the last decade. Mobility start-ups attracted an average of $37 billion in investment capital worldwide every year between 2015 and 2020, according to US consultancy Oliver Weyman.
“There is progress to be made both with availability and infrastructure, plus the cost of hydrogen which today is more expensive than other power sources, but we have to move in another direction and operate that transition,” said Mr Armoudom.
“There is a need to move forward. As we are in a niche market, we know already how to organise the supply and refuel of hydrogen in the quantities that we need. Tomorrow, if there are tens of thousands of boats that are bigger and require more hydrogen, that would be a challenge, but we know that governments and investors are working on it with funds and projects, so it [the market] is going in the right direction.”