The promise of electric aviation has been weighed down by the limited range of batteries and the long certification process. Regent co-founder and CEO Billy Thalheimer, who previously worked at Aurora Flight Sciences, has looked to maritime — and more specifically, electric seagliders — for the answer to these two challenges.
“How can we do something that’s all electric and sustainable in that 50 up to hundreds of miles range and deal with the certification side?” Thalheimer told TechCrunch in a recent interview. The answer, he contends, is to combine hydro-foiling watercraft and electric aviation. These electric seagliders operate like a boat at docks and in harbors, take off from wave-tolerant hydrofoils and fly within one wingspan of the surface over open water.
Importantly, a seaglider is a class of vehicle called a wing-in-ground effect vehicle, or WIG, which internationally and domestically is under maritime jurisdiction. Receiving certification via maritime law, which is a multiyear process, doesn’t lower the bar of safety, Thalheimer said, adding it simply gives the company a more straightforward regulatory process to get there.
Seagliders only do dock-to-dock over water transportation and always fly within the wingspan of the surface of the water. And because these crafts fly within the ground effect — a cushion of air close to the surface — the craft sees aerodynamic efficiency and range improvements. They reach cruise speeds up to 180 mph while traveling up to 180 miles on a single charge, according to Regent. Battery ranges of 350 to 500-miles is possible by the end of the decade as technology improves, Thalheimer said.
Investors seem keen on the idea. The Rhode Island-based startup announced this week at the UP Summit it has raised $60 million in a Series A round co-led by 8090 Industries and Founders Fund. Point72, Caffeinated Capital, Mark Cuban, UAE’s Strategic Development Fund, Future Planet Capital and others participated, as well as strategic investments from Japan Airlines Innovation Fund, Yamato Holdings (the largest logistics company in Japan) and Lockheed Martin. The company has now raised $90 million to date.
The funds will be used to build and test a proof-of-concept prototype as well as grow the team from 55 people to about 100 in 2024. The company plans to start trials next summer, with the first human flight by the end of 2024, Thalheimer told TechCrunch on the sidelines of the UP Summit event. The company has two products in the pipeline: Viceroy, a 12-passenger vehicle that is expected to enter service by mid-decade, and Monarch, a 100-passenger seaglider.
Regent also said it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Japan Airlines, an agreement that expands on an investment by the airline’s venture fund JAL Innovation Fund. The aim is to work toward established seaglider operations in Japan.
But Japan isn’t the only potential market. Thalheimer said other areas around Miami, the Bahamas, the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii also makes sense as well as international markets around the Mediterranean Sea, the English Channel and the North Sea.