The Soviets used to build the world’s biggest and ugliest airplanes:
They called them by the ugly term “ekranoplans”, or “screen effect” in Russian. They flew low over water, and got lift from the cushion of air between the wings and the surface, the ground effect. That meant that they could carry hundreds of tons of cargo. The plane above carried missiles in those tubes on top for use against US aircraft carriers. They only built a couple and didn’t see service for long.
Here in the 21st century, Regent Craft is building a far better-looking version, and giving it a much nicer-sounding name – a seaglider:
Unfortunately for their marketing department, it’s a prop plane, not a glider. It uses all electric propulsion – 8 props and about 500 kWh of batteries. That gives it a range of 300 km and a speed of 300 km/hour. This first model seats 12 passengers and a pilot. It’s meant for coastal transport, like Boston to Nantucket in 45 minutes. You board on a dock, taxi out of the harbor on hydrofoils, and then take off in the ocean. It flies at about 10 m, but can probably pop up to avoid small boats or low islands. It’s heavily equipped with radar for automatic obstacle avoidance.
Regent Craft is based in Boston, and the founders are from MIT and various aerospace operations like Boeing and Virgin Galactic. The CEO, Billy Thalheimer, worked on electric planes, but couldn’t get enough range to be worthwhile. The ground effect gets them twice the range for the same payload and batteries. They’ll be built by Moore Brothers in Bristol RI, a shop that specializes in marine carbon composites, but has never built a whole boat, much less a plane.
They’re backed by funds from Mark Cuban and Peter Thiel, both rather controversial figures. They already have a lot of orders, most notably 20 units for $250M from Southern Airways, an outfit in Florida. They’ll do first trials this year down in Tampa, and hope to start taking passengers in 2025.
There have been several other attempts at ekranoplans recently. NASA planned a transoceanic version in 2014. Wing Ship in South Korea built a 50-seater in 2013, but their website hasn’t changed since 2014. “Wingship” is a better name than “seaglider”, but they probably copyrighted it. WidgetWorks in Singapore actually got the Airfish 8-seater certified in 2018, but there’s been no other news.
So why is Regent more likely to succeed? It has a few points in its favor:
- Electric propulsion wins in lots of ways over internal combustion:
- It’s a lot quieter and cleaner, so more places will let them dock.
- It’s more reliable, with lots of redundancy in the motors, power packs, and inverters.
- Flying low with IC engines means that salt water gets sucked into the air intakes, which ruins the engines.
- It’s cheaper because it needs far less maintenance and uses energy more efficiently.
- Batteries are on a great curve of improving cost and density, so they can steadily expand the craft’s range.
- Everything has to be de-carbonized, even relatively minor sources like short-range flights, so they’ll be allowed when fossil fuels are banned.
- Autonomous flying using radar is a lot easier today given the work on self-driving cars. The Soviet planes were exhausting to fly because they needed constant attention. Autonomy is much easier to do at sea than on land. since there are fewer obstacles and they’re more visible.
- The hydrofoils let them take off in rough water. That was a problem for the Soviet versions.
- All airports are full, so this can service lots more places than short-range planes can.
- Transport used to be stagnant, but has been blown open by Tesla, and money is pouring in.
Still, there are some things against it:
- Taking 3 years to go from trials to paying passengers is ridiculously short for a brand-new design. Their backers are asking for extreme schedules.
- Their backers have bad reputations, which might scare off serious investors. Mark Cuban is a non-technical TV personality, and Peter Thiel is an ultra-libertarian wingnut.
- They want to certify this with the Coast Guard instead of the FAA, and that’ll be trouble when, not if, things go wrong.
- It only flies at 10 m, so a bad wind gust can put it in the water at 180 mph. That limits the weather it can fly in, and could be a risk even on calm days.
- The builders, Moore Brothers, are new to projects of this size and complexity.
Yet what a cool project this is! It could ultimately do Boston to New York far faster than Acela, and cheaper and cleaner than jets. In places far more dependent on ferries, like the Mediterranean, it could be a game-changer. It fits with the marine legacy of Boston and Rhode Island, and their current high tech resources. Here’s hoping they can make it work!