Commuters have long wished for a flying car or hyperloop to get from home to office, but what about a flying ferry?
Boston start-up Regent is developing an electric-powered Seaglider to connect coastal cities, dusting off a Cold War-era vessel for the Tesla generation, and creating a new mode of transport in the process.
Co-founder and chief executive Billy Thalheimer says the company is addressing a two-fold challenge by offering a promising vessel design whose potential has long been hampered by waves and crowded harbours, and flying more efficiently to take advantage today's battery technology.
Wing-in-ground effect craft have been around since at least the 1960s, when the Soviet Union experimented with a fearsome-looking WIG craft dubbed the Caspian Sea Monster that never made it past testing. Since then, use cases have remained limited.
Traditional WIGs have "basically been flying boats that take off and land on their hulls", Thalheimer tells The National. "They face the same problems as seaplanes – they can't take off or land in any waves bigger than two or three feet."
But Regent’s Seaglider is being designed with an intermediary position between boat and glider, popping up on a hydrofoil like an oversized competitor in a yacht race, allowing it to navigate busier waterways and inclement weather.
Once it has motored out of a harbour on a hydrofoil, the Seaglider takes off at a low speed using the water as a runway, then flies over the waves at a top speed of 290 kilometres per hour.
Flying a few metres above the water's surface "couples the high speed of an airplane with the low operating cost of a boat", Thalheimer says.
This is necessary because Regent is courting companies that cater to commuters, such as airlines and ferry operators, to drastically reduce the cost and drudgery of regional transportation. In its sights are existing ferry routes as well as short-haul flight paths and coastal railways and highways that connect major hubs, such as Dubai to Abu Dhabi, New York to Washington, DC or the UK to France.
The company also aims to address the growing demand for travel that is more environmentally friendly.
Global transport emissions increased 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, the IEA found that transportation is still responsible for 24 per cent of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion.
Amid growing public awareness and improving electrification technology and infrastructure, Thalheimer believes the timing is right for his team's futuristic vision.
"Situations like Covid spur creativity," he says. Drumming up meetings with ferry and airline executives, for example, has been easier.
"They all have Zoom installed and I think they're probably all looking for a cool, feel-good story, a futuristic distraction. And so they'll take the 15-minute Zoom call for the intro," he says.
This has so far paid off.
In the first quarter of this year, Regent secured provisional orders worth $465 million.
Earlier this month, French ferry service Brittany Ferries called the Seaglider a possible contender for the "future of passenger ships" and signed a letter of intent that could lead to the first transport of 150 passengers from the UK to France in 2028. On its current battery range, Regent will reduce sailing times between Portsmouth and France from five hours by conventional ferry to 40 minutes.
The company also raised $9m in seed funding led by Founders Fund and Caffeinated Capital, as well as technology investor Mark Cuban, Y Combinator, Thiel Capital, Relativity Space founder Jordan Noone and Fitbit founder James Park.
On the back of these efforts, Regent said it is on track to perform its first test flight by the end of 2021, using a prototype that is a quarter of the scale of what it plans to one day sell to customers.
Thalheimer and his co-founder Michael Klinker, the company's chief technology officer, are aiming to be "the pragmatic alternative to some of these other electric aviation companies".
The pair of MIT alums both worked at Boeing's Aurora Flight Sciences, developing Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing vehicles. While they remain optimistic about the future of urban air mobility and hope to one day have a passenger hop off a Seaglider and into an eVTOL for last-mile transportation, Regent faces fewer hurdles than the electric aviation industry.
A Seaglider will be able to hold more passengers, travel in more adverse weather and fits into existing harbour infrastructure. But it faces similar unknowns with regards to regulation.
"Are we going to come out with a fully mature network with 100 docks in 2025?" Thalheimer asks. "I don't think so."
But he doesn't think they will need to.
"When people fly for the first time in the Seaglider and they see how comfortable it is and how accessible it is and how inexpensive it is, I think these will very quickly catch on for the rest of the world."