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With new investors and a full-size prototype on the way, R.I.-based seaglider company looks to take off

North Kingstown-based REGENT Craft has been testing a quarter-scale model for months, and plans to fly humans on its full-scale prototype next year

Seaglider start-up Regent CEO Billy Thalheimer with the company's quarter-scale model – Turtle, as it is affectionately known – of the 12-passenger seaglider, Viceroy.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The vocabulary around the seagliders that Rhode Island-based startup REGENT Craft is developing can get a little tricky. They’re not just boats, because they can also fly. They fly, but they don’t have pilots — they have captains, and they’re the nautical “ahoy matey” kind, not the aerial “you may now move about the cabin” kind. They don’t really “land,” since when they come down from the air, they end up back on water.

Whatever words you want to use about them, they’re getting a lot of attention — from investors, airlines, and the public at large.


REGENT, which moved from Burlington, Massachusetts, to North Kingstown last year, recently landed — so to speak — an investment from the venture arm of Japan Airlines. Company officials say they have an order book of $8 billion in backlog for their gliders, although there isn’t even a full-scale prototype yet.

There will be one soon. Earlier this winter, REGENT started work on making a full-scale model of its 12-seat Viceroy, the first product it’s trying to get to market. That came after months of testing a quarter-scale Viceroy prototype in Narragansett Bay. The plan is to fly actual humans on the full-scale prototype in the second half of 2024, with orders ready for customers within a year or two from then.

Evan Orenstein, senior flight software engineer, inside full-scale simulator, a mockup of a REGENT seaglider cockpit. The software keeps the vehicle in "ground effect" just 15 feet above the water's surface. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

There are challenges, and one of the big ones is trying to explain just what in the world they’re doing tucked away in an office at the Quonset Business Park and out on the bay with the quarter-scale model.

“We’re re-energizing coastal communities by giving them access to new technologies,” CEO Billy Thalheimer said. “But not everyone knows what to make of it, right?”

Right. To that end, REGENT on Thursday hosted The Boston Globe for a behind-the-scenes look at the operation on Callahan Road, where, in the lot outside, you’ll find multiple cars with MIT bumper stickers. Thalheimer and chief technology officer Mike Klinker met on their first day as freshmen there.


About half of REGENT 40-person workforce is now based in Rhode Island, and they’re growing quickly enough that they’re soon going to take over another building in the business park. The company last year was authorized for state incentives as part of its move here.

“It’s been totally the right place to incubate this,” said Thalheimer, who’s from Natick, Massachusetts. “And we think we can be here for the next many decades.”

On Thursday, the same day as the tour, REGENT — which stands for Regional Electric Ground Effect Nautical Transport — was test-flying its quarter-scale unmanned prototype in the waters of Narragansett Bay nearby. The test flights since August showed that it can work, Thalheimer said.

Customers include ferry companies and airlines around the world, on five continents, the company says. It has potential applications in places like Hawaii, where you’d be able to get from island to island more easily. Some of the customers with REGENT orders have operated in the Northeast. A good use case for Rhode Island: By car, getting from North Kingstown to Bristol — a partner helping make the quarter-scale prototype, Moore Brothers Company, is in Bristol — could take an hour with traffic. It would take five to 10 minutes by seaglider, with arguably nicer views. Getting from Providence to Manhattan would take about an hour, and would be at the edge of the current battery capacity, the company said. But batteries are getting more efficient by the day.


REGENT's full-scale simulator. The view on the surrounding screen is Narragansett Bay. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

After the Viceroy comes the Monarch, which would hold up to 100 passengers. The company is eyeing the latter part of the decade for the Monarch.

Because it’s a new technology, and in some ways neither fish nor fowl, a lot about the craft and how it will operate remains to be determined. How will captains and crew be certified? They will work with the Coast Guard and international maritime authorities — not the FAA — to come up with a training regimen.

The seaglider uses three different modes of movement, all battery-powered by a series of propellers on the wing: hull, which isn’t much different from a floating boat puttering along. Foiling, which — to simplify things a little — uses hydrofoils to lift the craft out of the water, which reduces drag and gets the craft going faster. (You may have seen some futuristic surfboards that use this. The quarter-scale Viceroy model shows it emerging from the water on what look like metal stilts, which expand and retract depending on the mode.) And then flying, but only a few meters from the surface, no more than 60 feet. As the propellers move the craft forward, the plane is held aloft by the cushion of air between it and the water. It’s called the wing-in-ground effect, making the Viceroy a type of wing-in-ground craft.


There have been efforts for decades at making and broadly commercializing this sort of craft, including in Russia and Germany. One of the things REGENT says it has solved is with the foil. When going right from boating to wing-in-ground flying, the waves can be pretty rough, which makes maneuvering difficult and the ride unpleasant for passengers. But getting up in the foil as an intermediate mode solves that problem, and improves maneuverability, the company says. The foil is the middle part of three F’s: float, foil, and fly. The company says the seaglider would also be less noisy than planes and, because it’s electric, friendlier to the environment in a time of climate change.

There’s a chart written on a whiteboard inside the room with the simulator that shows the three phases of flight and how much drag each one produces. The diagram looks not unlike an extended version of Rhode Island’s Wave license plate. And it might look complicated to understand, but the simulator itself is fairly intuitive.

There are two seats situated behind a couple of display screens, for which the software and displays are still being optimized. The entire simulator rig sits behind an even bigger display to show what the flight looks like, including a simulated seaglider port in Narragansett Bay.

To start, you first move the throttle in the middle all the way up and flip a switch to get into hull mode. You’re floating along, enjoying Narragansett Bay, just like a boat, moving the stick in your left hand left or right to control your direction. Then you crank up to foiling mode by doing the same thing — throttle all the way up and flip a switch again. Then a third time to start flying. Soon enough you’re 15 feet in the air, a little over 50 miles per hour, able to move left or right, similar to operating a boat. In just a few minutes you can bank around Beavertail State Park, the sun setting softly in the distance.


“For some reason, it’s always golden hour here,” Klinker said.

With the wraparound simulator screen, it’s easy to suspend disbelief. Thalheimer says some people aren’t yet ready to do that. There are outright doubters out there, and even a moderate skeptic might have in the back of their mind visions of the Simpsons Monorail episode.

Thalheimer has a ready response, and rattles off a list of things that people do when they fly on an airplane: They’re hurtled in a metal tube into the sky so high that if they weren’t in a pressurized cabin, they’d freeze to death or suffocate.

“That sounds bonkers, right?” Thalheimer said.


“And that is our aviation system,” he said. “So if you can make international air travel work, then we can make a boat that goes really fast and flies in this aerodynamically favorable regime that birds have been doing for millennia. We can make that work.”

Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.