This boat-plane hybrid could transform intercity travel
(CNN) — At a time when transportation infrastructure projects seem to be taking center stage in American public debate, a Boston-based startup, backed by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors, wants to transform the sea lanes along the east and west coasts of the country in high-speed transit corridors.
Regent’s founders have an aviation background, including aerospace engineering degrees at MIT and a stint at Aurora Flight Sciences, a subsidiary of Boeing, but they looked to the seas for inspiration when they began looking for new, sustainable ways to transform intercity travel.
Billy Thalheimer and Mike Klinker have raised $9.5 million from Y Combinator, Mark Cuban and Peter Thiel, among other investors, to reinvent the concept of the wing-in-the-ground (WIG) effect and turn it into a way consumer transport with zero emissions.
Wing-in-ground effect vehicles are a kind of boat-aircraft hybrid.
They use an aerodynamic principle called “ground effect” to skim the surface of the sea at very high speed, hovering a few meters above the water. When in port, they simply let their hull rest on the water, like any other boat.
REGENT’s all-electric has top speeds of 180 miles per hour.
Presentation of the glider
The idea sounds simple, but ground effect vehicles face a number of issues that have so far prevented their more widespread adoption.
One of them is that, like seaplanes, ground-effect craft are very “wave-sensitive”: rough seas are prohibited and this is not an option if you want to provide regular commercial service and reliable.
Then you have the fact that they need a long stretch of calm water to take off; add their poor cornering ability on water and you have a vehicle that can be difficult to operate in busy ports.
However, REGENT claims to have solved this dilemma by introducing new elements, to the point that its founders are positioning their ground effect craft as a whole new category of vehicles, which they call “seagliders”.
REGENT is positioning its seaglider as a whole new category of vehicle.
High speed and fossil free
The seaglider combines wing-in-the-ground and hydrofoil technologies. It is a hybrid that preserves the main advantages of ground effect vehicles while addressing some of their disadvantages.
Hydrofoils are fast boats where the hull is above the surface, connected by struts to the foil (or foils), a wing-like horizontal surface that is in contact with the water and provides lift and stability while minimizing drag.
The seaglider has a retractable foil that allows it to switch between configurations, depending on what stage of the journey it is at. When in enclosed waters, such as ports, it will operate like a hydrofoil for added maneuverability, but once it reaches open seas, it will retract the foil and switch to wave skimming mode by as a pure ground effect vehicle. The foil will also isolate the hull from wave motion during the transition phase when the glider is accelerating in airborne mode.
The other interesting novelty is that the sea gliders are going to be all-electric from day one.
Working in the burgeoning eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) industry, the founders of REGENT realized the limitations of current battery technology. While capable of powering urban air mobility vehicles designed to operate within city limits, the low energy density of today’s batteries makes it very difficult to extend the range of all-electric vehicles beyond the very short range.
That’s when they turned to ground-effect vehicles as a high-speed, fossil-free alternative to connecting major cities without having to wait for battery technology to catch up.
Battery limitations mean the Sea Glider is currently best suited for short distance travel.
Electrified transport networks
Since winged ground effect vehicles are considered vessels, they operate under maritime regulations and do not face the same operational and regulatory constraints as aircraft.
WIGs, for example, don’t have to perform a sustained, battery-draining climb on takeoff, nor are they required to maintain a 45-minute power reserve. Overall, this gives designers more leeway to push the boundaries of technology.
“We know that some entrepreneurs create the product first and expect to negotiate the rules afterwards, but that didn’t seem like a workable proposition to us,” Thalheimer told CNN Travel.
The United States Coast Guard is the organization that oversees this type of vehicle, but Thalheimer says they are also in close contact with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as they feel it is beneficial for them to s are also involved in the process. In his vision, ground effect vehicles are part of larger multi-modal electrified transportation networks and share infrastructure nodes with eVTOLs and long-range commercial aircraft.
Many airports are located at the water’s edge, which would facilitate, for example, the sharing of charging infrastructure and the exchange of passenger flows between different types of air and sea vehicles.
REGENT hopes to eventually introduce a 50-passenger glider.
“Six times faster than the ferry”
The founders are confident that sea gliders will also benefit from advances in battery technology in the years to come, which should allow them to more than double their range to 500 miles.
For now, they’re content to extract the respectable (for a watercraft) speed of 180 miles per hour for a range of 180 miles, which is enough for trips like New York to the Hamptons or LA to Santa Barbara, for example.
Despite the complexity of its hybrid character, REGENT presents the sea glider as a relatively inexpensive option operationally. The use of electric motors, which have fewer moving parts than internal combustion engines, is a major factor in keeping costs low.
REGENT offers its sea glider as an alternative to traditional ferries and the new generation of electric aircraft. He claims it will be six times faster than ferries and have twice the range of electric planes for half the cost.
Prices will ultimately be set by operators, but Thalheimer estimates ticket prices per person per trip could be in the range of $50-80 for the first version of the glider, which will carry 12 passengers, and could drop to 30. at 40 dollars once the planned plan. The 50-seat glider enters service.
So far, the concept appears to have found a receptive market, having already received letters of intent worth around $465 million from airlines and ferry operators. REGENT has also recently entered into partnerships with Brittany Ferries and SplitExpress.
The company plans to fly a prototype unmanned sea glider, which will be a quarter of the actual size, by the end of this year and a full-scale prototype by 2023.
Hope all goes well for the future of water transport.