A New Zealand company is trying to raise close to $800 million for an ambitious project to link towns and cities with all-electric "sea gliders", a boat-plane hybrid with top speeds of up to 540km/h.
If it gets off the water, Ocean Flyer would revolutionise transport around Aotearoa and is promising low-cost fares and bus-like frequency through low operating cost of the craft which would dock near many city and town centres.
Ocean Flyer is owned by So Capital, which also owns Air Napier, and it has ordered from a United States startup 25 sea gliders that foil as America's Cup yachts do to take off and when in cruise mode fly about 10m above the sea.
So Capital owner and chief executive of newly registered Ocean Flyer, Shah Aslam, said the company had committed "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in deposits to Peter Thiel-backed startup Regent (Regional Electric Ground Effect Nautical Transport) for the craft as part of the payment plan that would reach $700m when the fleet is due to be delivered.
Aslam said he and his partners were also trying to raise $100m in working capital and a trip to Miami this week to meet Regent and launch the company would also include meetings with potential investors in the US.
Ocean Flyer would love to attract Thiel.
"I think the country's aware he's an excellent investor, and he's made some real solid investments in the past. So we're definitely keen to explore that option as well."
Aslam, 32, said the plan was ambitious and was still in its early days but was "not pie in the sky" and he had a big personal financial stake in it already. Besides some initial progress on raising capital, the company had also begun high-level discussions with Maritime New Zealand which would regulate the business, ports and the Government.
"We've already started the process of raising the capital at a high level. A lot of that capital will come from either local investors or overseas investors. We're talking about private equity money and we're talking about some of the partners we're looking to work up with within the [aviation] industry."
Regent also has the backing of billionaire investor Mark Cuban. Regent is developing the zero-emission, high-speed electric sea gliders with a team of MIT-trained, ex-Boeing engineers with an expectation of bringing them to market by 2025.
They have not yet been tested although a scaled-down prototype is due to fly soon.
Ocean Flyer's $700m deal is for 25 sea gliders: 15 Viceroys, each holding up to 12 passengers, and 10 Monarchs, which can hold up to 100 passengers.
The Viceroys would have a range of 290km at nearly 290km/h and the Monarchs could travel up to 800km at nearly 540km/h.
"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."
He said sea gliders would be able to travel between Wellington and Christchurch in an hour for just $60 a seat, or between Auckland and Whangarei in 30 minutes for $30.
Ocean Flyer will service the majority of the coastal destinations in the country where about 70 per cent of the population lives.
He likened the impact of sea gliders to the introduction of the steam engine to the country and the boom in agricultural and domestic passenger aviation in the 1950s.
Frequent flights from pontoons near downtown locations would provide the opportunity for spur of the moment trips between cities at a low cost.
Aslam said a genuine commitment to sustainable transport from some of the world's biggest investors in the face of climate change was encouraging and although there was global economic uncertainty with recession a possibility, this didn't make it a bad time to start something revolutionary.
"Is it ambitious? It most definitely is. Is this pie in the sky? No, absolutely not," said Aslam, who has owned Air Napier since 2018.
Air New Zealand (which is also investigating battery technology for traditional land-based services) has a stranglehold over domestic flying, a lucrative part of its business.
Aslam, through his ownership of Air Napier, knows what a fierce competitor the airline is but said Ocean Flyer would not necessarily be competing head to head with the national carrier and he hoped there could even be co-operation over sustainable technology.
Lower running costs and the potentially big savings from dealing with ports rather than airports gave a new operation an advantage compared to a legacy operator.
"If Air NZ was to come and start reducing the fares this is one form of technology where we may able to outlast them in terms of them trying to drive us out of the market."
How it works
John Hamilton, a decorated RNZAF officer and former head of Civil Defence, is Air Napier's operations manager and on board at Ocean Flyer, and says the craft operates in three modes.
It starts off as a boat floating in the water, propelled by electric engines, gains speed and comes up on foils like America's Cup boats, and as it picks up speed and its wings generate lift, it starts to fly.
It's designed to remain in ground-effect — the mode of aeroplanes at about one to one and a half wingspans above the ground.
"So in our case, this will be about 10 metres off the surface and what happens is that the vortexes which are normally generated by wings, delivering lift are cushioned by the proximity with the ground."
This reduces the amount of drag that wings create, which allows the sea gliders to use less horsepower to go faster or further.
The craft would not use energy to climb to high altitudes that traditional aircraft do but has the ability to fly at 500ft if required.
Radar altimeters and autopilots make sure that it stays within 10m of the surface but also can look ahead to see where the swells are and what the conditions are like.
Hamilton said that as a rule of thumb sea gliders could operate in the same weather as Cook Strait ferries - when storms are too severe they remain in port.
There are numerous rules covering craft in ports.
"The attraction is that we've got those three modes of operating so if it was a congested area, with lots of other seaborne traffic we would act like a boat [with a large wingspan] and we would only accelerate and start to fly when you reach the outer limits."
Aslam said developing port infrastructure to serve sea gliders wouldn't be more expensive than developing airports.
"We're working with Regent to try and get at least a 1/4 scale model across to New Zealand by the end of this year, or the beginning of next year."
Regent says it has sales of more than $8 billion. Ocean Flyer joins five established international aviation and ferry businesses around the world, including Europe's Brittany Ferries, as launch partners.