The first photos are released of a revolutionary wave-skimming craft, which is to travel between NZ ports at more than 300kph. Their developer rejects scepticism: ‘We’re real, we have hardware in the water, the physics are behind us’
A prototype sea-to-air passenger craft has clocked more than 35 knots (70kph) in sea trials off Tampa, Florida this month – and a New Zealand company is today announcing the $700 million purchase of some of the first commercial production models.
Ocean Flyer owner Shah Aslam, the owner of the small charter airline Air Napier, is fronting a group of investors who are putting down $50m in deposits to buy the electric sea gliders, initially to carry up to 12 passengers between New Zealand ports. Their commitment takes the capital raised by US-based Regent Craft to US$6.75 billion (NZ$9b), with other early adopters including the French company Brittany Ferries, Croatia’s Splitexpress, and US airlines Mesa and Southern.
That highlights the hybrid character of the battery-powered craft, part boat and part plane. It’s intended to sail from maritime ports, rise onto its foils as it exits the harbour, and then as it gets to open seas, take to the air to skim up to 10 metres above the water.
Regent says many of its systems are from aviation, like the high-tech avionics control and navigation system, but it has gained approval from US regulators to operate under less stringent maritime regulations – which the company’s co-founder Billy Thalheimer acknowledges may somewhat alarm boaties out fishing.
Thalheimer has been out on the Florida waters watching the remote-piloted trials. “Certainly some people have looked apprehensive, some jet skiers and boat owners,” he told Newsroom, ahead of today’s big reveal at the CoMotion conference in Miami. “They’ve quite often taken pictures, so we’re attracting a bit of attention. But I’d say in general, we’ve had a very high cadence of test operations and there haven’t been too many prying eyes.”
“Agencies and regulators will continue to work closely with Ocean Flyer to ensure the safety of any future operation.”
– Michael Wood, Transport Minister
As well as revealing the first images of the prototype today, Thalheimer and Aslam are announcing the New Zealand order of 25 craft: first up, 15 of the smaller Viceroy craft, and ultimately 10 of the 100-seater Monarch craft when it is launched. They say it is a big step to zero emissions travel between NZ ports – and Thalheimer has a message for the sceptics.
“We’re real, we have hardware in the water, and the physics are behind us,” he said. “We’re developing the first new mode of transportation in many decades. The last one was maybe the helicopter, right?
“So we’ve had this electrification revolution, we have new technology in motors and batteries, new technology in flight controls and sensors, new technology in structures have with Advanced Composites – they unlock all these new opportunities that people weren’t familiar with before.
“There’s always scepticism with new technologies and new modes of transportation. There was scepticism that people would use a computer in their pocket with the iPhone, and now you’re inseparable from it. We’re really expecting sea gliders to be the same.”
Shah Aslam and his small team have briefed the operators of New Zealand’s seven biggest ports, who had responded positively, he said. And the New Zealand Government is welcoming today’s announcement.
“This is a game changer for Kiwi travellers. Electric sea gliders emit no carbon and are just as fast and comfortable as current aviation options.”
– Shah Aslam, Ocean Flyer
Transport Minister Michael Wood told Newsroom that regulators were working closely with the craft’s developers to ensure the safety of its operation, and would continue to do so. “Their investment is another example of businesses having confidence in NZ’s economic direction and our reputation as early adopters of innovative technologies,” he said.
Maritime NZ acting director Kenny Crawford said the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization had agreed that wing-in-ground-effect craft, such as the sea gliders, would be covered by the maritime regulatory regime. Existing regulation included maritime rules covering collision prevention and novel ships.
“We will be working closely with the operator as this initiative progresses, to ensure that they understand the regulatory requirements, and to assure the Director of Maritime NZ that the craft can be operated safely within the maritime environment,” he told Newsroom.
“In addition, the Director of Maritime New Zealand has the power under the Maritime Transport Act 1994 to impose conditions on the use or operation of any ship or any ship of a particular class.
“As this technology has not been implemented in New Zealand to date, this is the first time Maritime New Zealand will be undertaking the regulatory function, to ensure safe, secure and clean operations of the craft.”
“We saw that in New Zealand, 75 percent of the population are living on the coast … We’re moving people in a safe, comfortable, low cost, high speed zero emission way. Shah and myself just really connected on that point and saw the market opportunity.”
– Billy Thalheimer, Regent Craft
Crawford acknowledged the challenges in how such a high-speed craft would interact with other maritime vessels, rather than aircraft.
“The maritime rules in New Zealand, based on the IMO conventions, cover collision prevention, such that wing-in-ground craft, when taking off, landing or in flight near the surface of the water, must keep well clear, and avoid impeding the navigation, of all other vessels,” he added.
“We understand that these craft will have sophisticated avionic navigation systems over and above the traditional maritime navigation systems. In addition, the people operating the craft will need to demonstrate competency to be able to navigate the craft safely.”
Noting that Aslam is already the owner of a small airline, Crawford said Aslam and the operators of his craft would have to meet fit and proper person requirements, under the Maritime Transport Act 1994. “This includes the person’s compliance history with transport safety regulatory requirements and the person’s related experience (if any) within the transport industry.”
High-speed foiling was popularised worldwide by the America’s Cup, contested last year on Auckland’s Waitematā Habour. Members of the Regent design team include Team Oracle USA aero-mechanical designer William Bryan Baker, and American Magic structural engineer Andrew Gaynor.
And Regent is backed by venture capital firms led by high-profile investors Peter Thiel and Mark Cuban – names that are very familiar to New Zealanders.
Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire who co-founded PayPal and Palantir and backed Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, has lodged plans to build a large complex on a 193-hectare estate that he owns on the shores of Lake Wanaka.
But he’s equally interested in living on the sea, and is the leading backer of a controversial vision to build permanent dwellings at sea, called seasteads. In line with his libertarian beliefs, they would be politically autonomous in international waters outside the territory claimed by any government, and so would avoid tax and other regulation.
“When operational, MetService look forward to providing Ocean Flyer with aviation and marine forecasts to support their operations.”
– Stephen Hunt, MetService
Thalheimer confirmed Thiel’s support and agreed that sea gliders could be perfect for seasteading. “Absolutely. They really work for any maritime transportation on this regional scale, up to 300 kilometres with existing battery technology. There are huge opportunities across the board.”
But the decision to sign up with Ocean Flyer as their southern hemisphere partner was less about Thiel’s influence, and more about Aslam. “We saw that in New Zealand, 75 percent of the population are living on the coast. And the approach from Shah’s Ocean Flyer team, thinking outside the box, in terms of how we move people from aviation to maritime.
“That doesn’t really matter as long we’re moving people in a safe, comfortable, low cost, high speed zero emission way. Shah and myself just really connected on that point and saw the market opportunity.”
The sea gliders promise to transport passengers and cargo up to 300km in the Viceroys (meaning trips like Auckland to Wellington would have to be made in two hops, with a recharging stop at New Plymouth or Napier) and up to 800km in the Monarchs. The company says the Monarchs will initially travel at about 300kph, but will eventually be pushed up to 540kph.
“This is a game changer for Kiwi travellers,” said Shah Aslam. “Electric sea gliders emit no carbon and are just as fast and comfortable as current aviation options.”
Ocean Flyer has already developed a rough pricing strategy. A seat on a trip between Wellington and Christchurch would cost $60, Aslam said, or just $30 for a trip between Auckland and Whangarei “Ocean Flyer will service the majority of the coastal destinations in the country,” he added. “It will also open up options for communities which are currently under-serviced by existing operators, if they are even served at all.”
In a statement, MetService chief executive Stephen Hunt hailed the Ocean Flyer proposal as innovative and exciting. The craft’s developers say it will be able to foil in waves of up to 1.5 metres, before taking off as it reaches the open waters.
“Initially MetService will assist by supplying climatological and historic data on the sea and wind conditions of New Zealand’s coastlines and harbours,” Hunt said. “When operational, MetService look forward to providing Ocean Flyer with aviation and marine forecasts to support their operations.”