• Second Century
  • Posts
  • ✈️ #21: Will electric aviation take off from water?

✈️ #21: Will electric aviation take off from water?

In issue 14 of this newsletter I wrote about the Norwegian company Elfly, the electric seaplane they are building and their business model. Apparently they liked it, because I was invited to the reveal of the design of their new model in Oslo.

⏱️ In short

  • Norwegian startup Elfly has presented the design of their new electric seaplane.

  • Electric seaplanes will enable a new business model by providing an emission free and fast mode of transportation for remote area’s.

  • Especially Norwegian local governments seem te be interested in this new type of transportation.

Want to know more? Scroll some more ⬇️

The most significant challenge that builders and operators of electric aircraft will face in the next decade is finding the most suitable business model. Which airports, or more accurately, which communities can be connected quickly, comfortably, and affordably by electric aircraft? There must be a balance between maximum payload (passengers and/or cargo) and maximum range, as the more batteries taken along, the less weight available for payload. And there mustn't be too much competition from other modes of transport.

Norwegian startup Elfly seems to be striking the right chord with their fully electric seaplane. Elfly revealed the design of their first commercial airplane, the NOEMI, two weeks ago. The name stands for No Emission, and it's the third electric aircraft the Elfly team has built. The first two aircraft, a single-seater seaplane and an air racer, have already logged many flight hours but were never produced for commercial purposes. The NOEMI is set to change this. This twin-engine seaplane is designed to transport between four and thirteen passengers (depending on the configuration) or four Europallets of cargo over a distance of 250 kilometers, excluding reserves.

To speed up the design and construction of the aircraft and hasten the certification process, the design is largely based on proven technology. Designer Sathvik Sathyanarayana Rao indicates that the Grumman G-73 Mallard was a particular source of inspiration. Fans of historic military may recognize a smaller version of the Catalina in it. The most striking difference from these historic aircraft is that the engines are mounted on top of the wing, instead of within it. This is to prevent splashwater from hitting the propellers. The aircraft looks familiar but contains modern technology inside, allowing seaplanes to be deployed where they perform best.

Even though all electric aircraft built in the coming years will face limited range and passenger capacity, this seems less relevant for seaplanes. Almost all seaplanes worldwide make relatively short flights with a small number of passengers or cargo. It's a business model that doesn't aim for large-scale operations, but works best in a specific environment. And water-rich, mountainous Norway just happens to be such a specific environment.

The business model above all

For Elfly founder and CEO Eric Lithun, the business model is paramount. Or as he puts it: "You have to like the plane, but you have to love the business model." Elfly's seaplane is not being built to introduce new technology or to demonstrate that Norway wants to be leaders in sustainable flying. The goal is for Elfly itself to operate as an airline and to exploit an existing market demand. An electric aircraft is a means, not an end.

During his youth in the Norwegian city of Bergen, Lithun saw seaplanes take off and land daily from the city's docks. This was quite common in Norway years ago. The many small communities around a city like Bergen are often difficult to reach by land due to the many mountains, fjords, and rivers. There is little flat land to build a runway for conventional airplanes, while there is plenty of water for a seaplane to land.

However, seaplanes have disappeared due to noise pollution. The advantage of a seaplane is that it can land in the water in the middle of a city center, but that also means that residents are always nearby. And popular models like the De Havilland Twin Otter, and the Cessna Caravan are not exactly quiet.

As an alternative, Norwegians make extensive use of domestic flight routes from airports often located far outside the city. This is while 90% of domestic routes are less than an hour's flight, and 80% of Norwegians live near a large body of water. Operating an aircraft from a location where people already are, and not an airport far from the city, without burdening the environment, is precisely what Elfly aims to achieve.

The first route Lithun has set his sights on is Bergen - Stavanger. Both cities are located by the water on the Norwegian west coast. About a million people travel between these two cities every year, mainly by car, bus, or airplane. The image below shows the potential difference in travel time if an Elfly aircraft were to be deployed on this route.

Aviation as public service

Although it all sounds wonderful on paper, you also need customers who will pay for the flight. Or in the case of a product yet to be launched, organizations that show interest in purchasing the product in the future. At a product presentation, this is often done by having interested parties sign a letter of intent. This is an important step as it can convince potential investors of the demand for the product.

The most remarkable moment of the NOEMI presentation for me was when I saw which parties had expressed interest in Elfly's product. Usually, letters of intent are signed by commercial parties wanting to use the product. For instance, an airline planning to buy the airplane.

Surprisingly, the parties interested in Elfly's seaplane are local governments. Municipalities and regions located along Norway's many fjords. Because of the vast amount of water, these regions are hard to reach by car or train and see an electric seaplane as the tool to connect their community with larger cities, hospitals, and large-scale economic activity in the wider area. This benefits the region's quality of life and makes it more attractive for companies to invest in.

A call from local governments for more flights was surprisingly positive from my Dutch perspective. It's often the municipalities around airports here that complain about nuisance. It was good to see that governments in Norway are looking beyond current aviation problems and seeing the opportunities electrification can offer their citizens. Lithun added that "it's primarily the governments who see the potential of this new type of transport and are also willing to pay to make this service possible for their citizens". This shows that aviation in hard-to-reach areas is seen more as a basic necessity for society than as a luxury for vacations or business trips.

It's a form of public transportation that will be possible by investing in a new way of building and operating aircraft. By looking beyond the limitations of kerosene, Elfly and its partners are enabling a new future for aviation.

Thank you for getting all the way down to the end of this issue of The Second Century of Flight! If you have any questions or suggestions you can contact me via [email protected] or send me a message via LinkedIn.

For more about me, visit giel.io