Simulation to Help Develop Electric Seaplanes

REGENT plans to innovate sea travel with Siemens’ cloud-based tools.

The Rise of the Seagliders

REGENT has a straightforward and nontechnical mission statement: “to drastically reduce the cost and headache of regional transportation between coastal cities.” The Boston transportation company was cofounded by CEO Billy Thalheimer and CTO Mike Klinker, both engineers trained at MIT with a lifelong love of aviation. Over the next five years, the goal is to operate one-hour commercial flights between coastal cities up to 180 miles distance. The seaplanes are expected to run with zero emissions and fly on a cushion of air just a few meters above the water. With an electric vehicle that has the speed of an aircraft and the lower operating costs of a seacraft, the company hopes that it will be able to showcase the best of both transportation worlds.

The Viceroy operates at low altitudes and high velocities. (Image courtesy of REGENT.)

The Viceroy operates at low altitudes and high velocities. (Image courtesy of REGENT.)

The first model of REGENT’s seaplanes is the Viceroy Seaglider, which has a 65-foot wingspan and a 57.5-foot length. The planes can carry 12 passengers and two crewmembers and hold 3,000 pounds of passenger payload or 3,500 pounds of cargo payload. Eight separate 120-kiloWatt motors will propel the aircraft and at take off will only run at around 59 decibels (about the level of normal conversation). The company will run prototype sea trials in 2023 and enter service with the Viceroy in 2025. Beyond these goals is the inspiration to use next-generation battery technology to make trips of up to 500 miles.

Eight 120-kiloWatt motors power the Viceroy. (Image courtesy of REGENT.)

Eight 120-kiloWatt motors power the Viceroy. (Image courtesy of REGENT.)

REGENT recently announced a partnership with Siemens to access its Xcelerator portfolio of cloud-based tools. Siemens has worked with REGENT since the mobility company’s founding in 2020. The digital nature of the seaglider’s development is well suited for a single software supplier that uses cloud delivery for its tools.

“At REGENT we are focused on bringing a revolutionary new vehicle to the transportation market with the potential to change how both people and freight move over the water,” said Mike Klinker, cofounder of REGENT. “As our sea gliders approach certification and full-scale commercial production, we need a robust, modern digital tools platform that supports the pace of our innovation cycles with the rigor to encompass a product as complex as ours. Siemens Xcelerator as a Service was a perfect fit for a digital-first startup like ours. Cloud native solutions, such as Teamcenter X, minimize administrative overhead and allow us to focus 100 percent on design, engineering, manufacturing, and innovation. Siemens’ valued collaboration and the subscription model provide significant cash flow benefits that are vital to any startup.”

The Role of Simulation in the Seaglider Development

What does a tool like Xcelerator do for a company that manufactures seagliders? The seaglider isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel, but it is a fusion of several different technologies. There’s hydrofoil boat, plane and electric vehicle technology coming together here. Taking the specific characteristics from each transportation mode and integrating them is another level of complexity.

The Viceroy prototype sits on the water. (Image courtesy of REGENT.)

The Viceroy prototype sits on the water. (Image courtesy of REGENT.)

This is where Xcelerator can help a company, especially a startup, in the product design and development process, and later in the production control zones. There’s a big push to move software and services to the cloud and consume only what you need when you need it. This approach can help a project like the Viceroy, where a customer might not need all the resources to develop a plane.

As engineers, we also know that incorporating three different products and creating a synthesis might mean that all the requirements from each product need to be satisfied. If you want a vehicle that can do it all, then you’re going to need to validate and certify it all. So, many of the greatest simulation hits are needed—aerodynamic design for the plane, electronics design for the battery and motors and computational fluid dynamics for the water and hydrofoil.

What do you get when you specify that your company will use one individual software company’s platform? You get the full engineering knowledge of that company, the expertise from the people who built the design and simulation tools, all in one place. Engineers are not known for being incredibly patient people, and when you’re doing work on future technology there will be times when you want to do things as fast as possible. When this happens, it will help to have all of your models, simulation trials and enterprise data with one single group of people who can push the software to do what you need. To that point, Xcelerator is also set up to easily share data between Siemens applications and those of other companies, branding itself as a marketplace for users to get software from different suppliers.

This is a huge shift from 20 years ago when I would cringe at the idea of sharing files with a customer or vendor that was using a different CAD software. Converting files, saving files in different formats, and using common file formats between software can still occasionally throw a wrench into a project, but data sharing has come a long way.

What Does It All Mean?

Viewing the story through an engineering innovation lens, the most innovation here is the combination of three technologies.

However, several companies are developing electric seaplanes with a variety of similar configurations to REGENT. Harbour Air was running test flights back in 2019 with retrofitted de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver planes, after becoming a carbon-neutral airline way back in 2007. Harbour also ran tests in August 2022 that flew from Richmond to Sidney in British Columbia, traveling 72 kilometers in 24 minutes. The unbelievably small seven-person team from Norwegian company Elfly is also running tests of electric seaplanes in the fjords, where pilots have plenty of access to coastline but limited runway space. These are some of the bigger stories in electric seaplane development, but there are many more groups working toward the same goal.

REGENT makes a name for itself with founders who have extensive experience in aviation engineering and technology. When talk turns to investors, the biggest backer mentioned is billionaire Mark Cuban, but Fitbit founder James Park is also in the mix. Having a huge financial backing builds hype and word of mouth, and even though the group isn’t even in the prototype phase, it has already booked billions of dollars’ worth of sales from airlines and ferry companies. This statistic becomes even more mind blowing when taking into account that a 2021 Fortune Business Insights report estimated the 2028 seaplane market at $358.1 million.

Seagliders as a widespread form of transportation seems like a big stretch from how people live today, until you learn that around 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a coast.

There’s a whole basket of engineering problems that come with this idea, many of which are tied to protecting coastal areas from rising water levels and flooding from our shifting climates. But the opportunities that can be built around transportation for these areas are huge. REGENT imagines several ways that its mobility products can be used. Carrying passengers back and forth to ports is the main function, but commercial cargo transport is just as easy as commercial passenger movement.

Tourism comes into play when passengers can easily see the views from a low vantage point through large windows and enjoy the quieter operating noises from the seagliders. Offshore drilling rigs and projects could benefit from fast deliveries of components of people to different sites. A three-bed configuration mockup shows how medical personnel and equipment can be flown quickly to an emergency area, and how people needing medical attention can be evacuated. Defense is another possible application for the seagliders, which can ferry soldiers back and forth from aircraft carriers to ports or run patrols up and down coasts.

REGENT and other companies building seagliders and electric watercraft don’t necessarily feel like direct competitors. These are engineering companies developing hybrid aircraft/watercraft to move passengers or payloads up and down coastal regions. There are goals to develop new vehicle classes, reduce emissions, and increase sustainability. The engineers involved in these projects are designing vehicles that will use the current battery technology and interact with future generations of batteries. Simulation will play a huge role in all these developments over time, and simulation will also grow in terms of what it can do and how it can help engineers and enterprises.