Is Seafaring Aviation the Future of Intercity Transit?

Transportation infrastructure seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. Our bridges, highways, and railroads are in desperate need of repair, and sustainable answers to transit both within and between cities is an urgent necessity.

Is Seafaring Aviation the Future of Intercity Transit?

Unfortunately, construction of traditional infrastructure is enormously expensive. California just paid $6.4 billion for its new Bay Bridge, making New York’s new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge look like a bargain (though the final-final cost may be more like $5 billion). That cumbersome 19th-century technology requires intensive maintenance, as heavy equipment moving at high speeds abuses the tracks. If only there were some innovative way to create a transit system without laying tracks or roadways.

Enter Regent and its Seaglider, an all-electric vehicle designed to cross waterways at speeds up to 180 miles per hour. Part plane, part boat, the Seaglider uses a trick of physics called “wing-in-ground-effect” to get sufficient lift to traverse calm seas at high speeds.

Traveling six times faster than a ferry with a present range of about 180 miles, the Seaglider could carry passengers from New York to Boston or Los Angeles to Santa Barbara in a fraction of the time the trip now takes by plane, train or automobile, and for a much lower cost.

Here are some of the advantages Regent touts for its vehicle:

  • Emission-free performance
  • Low-cost service due to extremely low maintenance requirements
  • Easy implementation using existing port infrastructure

Utilizing the Seaglider, travelers between coastal cities could bypass busy airports, congested highways, and slow-moving railways. Companies employing the “flying ferry” would only have to worry about its own equipment: there are never any roads to repave or rails to repair.

There are some drawbacks to the technology. Wing-in-ground-effect—the extensive lift an airfoil (i.e., wing) gets when it remains close to the surface—only works against smooth surfaces, so choppy seas are an impediment. The vehicles also require long stretches of quiet waters to build up speed, and turning the vehicles within the confines of a busy port can be a challenge. However, Regent’s innovative design, incorporating hydrofoil technology, allows the vehicle to change configuration based on the stage of the journey to overcome these difficulties. The Seaglider is designed to hold as many as 120 passengers.

Regent was created by two MIT alums who worked at Boeing's Aurora Flight Sciences, developing Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing vehicles. The visionaries expect their Seaglider to reduce the travel time between coastal destinations significantly. They hope to connect passengers from Portsmouth in the U.K. to Cherbourg in France, a distance of about 75 miles, in 40 minutes by 2028. Today that trip across the English Channel takes six hours by conventional ferry. Seaglider might also shuttle Bostonians to Nantucket in 45 minutes by 2025, an excursion that currently takes two hours. So, in the near future, whether you’re island-hopping for pleasure in the Caribbean or side-stepping tie-ups on the Northeast Corridor for business, the Seaglider could offer a low-cost, sustainable option.

Many of us who lived in the 20th century grew up expecting flying cars. Our skewed sense of where transportation technology might take us stemmed from the fact that flight had evolved from a 12-second hop along the beach at Kitty Hawk to a moon landing in a mere 66 years. From “If man were meant to fly, he’d have wings” to “One giant leap for mankind” in less than seven decades. Yet we’re still doing five miles per hour on the freeway every day at five o’clock? The flying cars can’t come soon enough, but in the meantime, let’s at least enjoy flying boats.

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