Brittany Ferries is exploring the potential for a new high-speed, sustainable and more efficient form of ferry travel called a seaglider. Such ferries with hydrofoils and a 50-150 passenger capacity could be sailing between the UK and France by 2028.
The concept, an all-electric, wing-in-ground effect vehicle (WIG), is under development in the United States through Boston-based start-up REGENT (Regional Electric Ground Effect Nautical Transport). REGENT expects the first commercial passengers to travel on smaller electric craft by 2025.
Seagliders combine the convenience of passenger ferries with the comfort of hydrofoils, the aerodynamic efficiency of hovercraft and the speed of aircraft. With the potential to connect existing ferry ports, the craft are expected to fly at speeds of up to 180 mph – six times faster than conventional ferries – with a battery-powered range of 180 miles. The voyage from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, for example, could be covered in as little as forty minutes. Next-generation batteries could increase the range to 500 miles.
Hovercraft with wings
They work by harnessing a concept well-known to pilots – ground effect. This is the cushion created by high-pressure air trapped between wings and the ground or water while flying at low altitude. Seagliders are therefore akin to a hovercraft with wings, rather than a skirt.
Following departure from port, the craft rises on foils insulating passengers from wave discomfort. In open waters, it takes off, riding the air cushion all the way to its destination. Wing-mounted propellors provide the thrust to take to the air at low speeds, while electric motors regulate air flow over wings while riding the air cushion.
It’s a highly efficient mode of transport, capable of moving significant loads over long distances at high speed. Power will come from batteries rather than fossil fuel. Flight safety is said to be provided by redundant propulsion and flight control systems, with next-generation sensor suites detecting and automatically avoiding traffic at sea.
Technological, practical and regulatory challenges
Both Brittany Ferries and REGENT understand that many technological, practical and regulatory milestones lie ahead. However, both companies say that caution should not stand as an impediment to the development of a promising concept that already has a history in military applications and smaller leisure craft operating around the world.
‘We are particularly pleased to contribute now because it means we can bring real-world challenges and potential applications into the company’s thinking at an early stage,’ says Frédéric Pouget, ports and operations director for Brittany Ferries. ‘We hope this may help bring commercial success in the years that follow. Who knows; this could be the birth of ferries that fly across the Channel.’