The first man powered flight came about in 1903 when the Wright brothers took to the air in the Wright Flyer, over Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. While not obvious to many, they were more ahead of their time than people realized. Their earlier flights were exclusively flown in a phenomenon known as “ground effect”, loosely defined as flying at an altitude of less than one wing span of the aircraft. A Singapore based company is now taking ground effect technology into the 21st century with the AirFish8.
Engineered by Wigetworks, a privately-funded company of 15 full-time engineers, the AirFish8 is the first ground effect vehicle to achieve near viable commercialization. It comes just in time to fuel a projected market explosion for the rapid transport of people and light goods in parts of the world where land and sea exist in similar proportions.
Since the Cold War, engineers in Germany, Russia, the U.S., Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have unsuccessfully tried to achieve safe flight dynamics for ground effect vehicles. However, the AirFish8 still has no credible competitors. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that without spending a single cent on marketing, the AirFish8 has received more than two thousand requests of interest from civilian and military and paramilitary establishments around the world, the royal families of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, Facebook Transport, CNN, The Economist, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, Hollywood film producers, and the list goes on.
A brief history of flying in ground effect
Since the beginning of time, humans have been obsessed with flying. While evolution gave the eagle wings, it kept humans grounded – but that did not stop them from experimenting unsuccessfully for centuries to defy gravity. In 1738, Daniel Bernoulli derived Bernoulli’s principle, described in his book, “Hydrodynamica,” as the relationship between pressure, density, and flow velocity. Bernoulli’s principle laid the theoretical foundation for the invention of flying machines, and humans would finally take flight.
Following the success of the Wright brothers, pilots began to realize that airplanes experienced more lift as they neared the surface during landing. If something is denser than air, it requires lift to stay above ground. When flying in ground effect, the air beneath a machine’s wings is compressed, giving it additional lift, or, a floating cushion. A machine designed to fly in ground effect is therefore far cheaper to operate than a plane of equivalent size, and far faster – up to 110 knots – than any boat, because it flies.
By the 1920s, the ground effect phenomenon was well known. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union developed the Caspian Sea Monster, an experimental ground effect vehicle, it was continuously tested by the Soviet Navy until 1980 when it was destroyed in a testing accident in the Caspian Sea. The Sea Monster was undetectable by traditional radars because it flew below the typical search range. While the Soviets could never establish a perfect safety track record required for commercial consideration, their prototypes proved the feasibility of flying in ground effect.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Alexander Lippisch, a pioneer of aerodynamics, was commissioned to develop a very fast boat by an American businessman. Lippisch developed the X-112, a ground effect vehicle. The X-112 proved stable and efficient in ground effect and after it was acquired by an Australian company, the X-112 was developed further by Lippisch’s protégé, Hanno Fischer, who designed and built the first version of the AirFish8. Wigetworks subsequently acquired the AirFish8 in 2004, and two improved prototypes were designed and built.
“We spent years trying to understand the physics behind the technology,” said Kim Hoo Ng, director of Wigetworks. “We had strong reason to suspect that some of the published results were fundamentally incorrect.”
Wigetworks discovered that while Hanno Fischer’s models were stable, the calculations demonstrated no rigorous understanding of flight stability. It was through his industry experience that his team was able to achieve flight stability while Wigetworks fundamentally established flight stability through calculations.
“We spent at least ten years proving the calculations rigorously, and improved on Fischers’ models,” Ng said.
One of the designers of the AirFish8, Klaus Matjasics, once told Ng: “If you mount a big enough engine on anything, including this conference table in front of us, it will fly.” Basically, making something fly isn’t a big deal anymore. What matters is whether it can fly safely and stably.
Reducing the world’s carbon footprint
At the rate things are going, the impetus for traveling over water will only increase because nature eventually beats man into submission.
More than 18.8 million people were internally displaced by natural disasters in 2017 – floods accounted for 8.6 million. Contrastingly, 11.8 million people were displaced by conflict. In Australia, the island continent, roughly 80 percent of people live within 31 miles of the coast. Rising seas could ignite a mass exodus. In Italy, 11 people died from mass flooding in October, while in already-sinking Venice, more than 70 percent of the city was flooded as water levels rose five feet. In September, Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, one of Japan’s busiest airports, became completely flooded by Typhoon Jebi, the strongest to hit Japan in 25 years. More than 700 flights were cancelled, with runways and planes submerged up to their engines. In Miami, the troublesome rising sea is a daily hurdle for people, but it’s probably good practice as they gear up for a future underwater. Zillow Inc estimates that a rise of six feet in sea level would put a quarter of Miami homes underwater – that’s $200 billion of precious real estate gone bye-bye. The AirFish8 might have found its place in the maritime transport family.
Despite carmakers’ claim that diesel cars are needed to meet climate change targets, a study by Transport & Environment found that a typical diesel car emits 42.65 tons of carbon dioxide over its lifecycle – 3.65 tons more than a petrol car. Diesel undergoes a more intensive refinery process, combusts at a higher temperature than petrol, is cheaper which leads to increased usage, and diesel engines are heavier. For fast diesel ships, these aspects are compounded because water is 800 times denser than air, which induces considerable resistance in the form of hydrodynamic drag.
The AirFish8 runs on a V8 car engine that uses unleaded petrol, consuming 75 liters per 80 nautical miles or, 92 miles. Assuming the average life span of a V8 engine car is eight years, extrapolating this data in accordance with the study to include 5 and 0.8 tons for production and biofuel additions respectively, finds that the AirFish8 emits 39.6 tons of carbon dioxide over eight years. No diesel ship can sail at the speed of the AirFish8 and even if one could, carbon dioxide emissions would amount to least 10 times 42.65 over the same period.
Building airports is also an extremely environmentally damaging endeavor. The Airport Carbon Accreditation is a global carbon management program that independently assesses airports’ efforts to reduce carbon emissions. From 2015-2016, 156 participating domestic and international airports recorded an accumulated carbon footprint of 4.7 million tons of carbon dioxide. There are roughly 18 thousand airports in the world, and while not exhaustive, extrapolating this data attributes 540 million tons of carbon dioxide to airports over the same period. For reference, the global transportation sector, which includes domestic aviation, road transportation, rail transportation, and domestic navigation, contributed roughly 6 billion tons to the roughly 38 billion global total in 2010.
The AirFish8 requires minimal infrastructure. It requires no runway for take-off and landing as a waterborne vehicle, and only a simple berthing station that can be rapidly built with simple, inexpensive materials – a polymer pontoon, for example. Moreover, its low draught allows a berthing station to be constructed in shallow water, near shorelines.
At present, 71 percent of the world is water and 50 percent live in coastal areas. In 50 years, 80 percent of the world might be water. Three quarters of the world’s largest cities are coast-side. Imagine if, instead of building a high-speed rail link from Singapore to Malaysia, costing no less than a hundred billion dollars on the infrastructure alone, in addition to the clearing of thousands of hectares of forestry and agriculture plantations along the way, people could jump into an AirFish8 and “sail” the distance with a marginal increase in commute time. Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to connect the universe to China might benefit accordingly. Interestingly, Xi just opened the world’s largest sea-crossing bridge in October, after nine years of construction. It spans 34 miles and connects Hong Kong to Macau and the Chinese city of Zhuhai. If connectivity is the theme of the future, the business case of the AirFish8 is certainly strong in both developed and emerging market economies – from shuttling people between islands in archipelagos, to sidestepping the traffic from New Jersey to New York City.
What’s wrong with seaplanes, helicopters, and giant drones?
Basically, the AirFish8 is safer and more efficient.
Drones take off vertically, requiring static lift. This is a very inefficient way to fly because it requires more thrust than the weight of the drone. Thrust refers to the force created when a system accelerates mass in one direction, creating an equal and opposite force on the system. For comparison, a fixed-wing aircraft requires aerodynamic lift. For a small airplane, the lift-drag ratio is usually 10. This means that the thrust required is one-tenth of the weight of the aircraft. Moreover, very few drones have meaningful payloads. Flying in ground effect creates an increase in lift and a reduction in induced drag. An increase in lift usually allows for a higher payload, and a decrease in drag usually allows for lower required thrust. This makes the AirFish8 much more efficient.
Seaplanes, not dissimilar from drones, tend to crash a lot. In Alaska, the private aviation accident rate is much higher than elsewhere across the U.S., largely due to the terrain and unpredictable weather conditions. Taking off and landing on a rolling liquid runway with potential submerged logs, rocks, and other tidbits, in addition to strong winds, is a constant risk for seaplane travelers. According to the National Traffic Safety Board, 697 seaplane accidents have killed 258 people across Alaska in the last three decades – and pilots are almost always among the dead. The worst year was 1982, when 24 people were killed, averaging two a month. The ground effect engineering underlying the AirFish8 enables it to take-off and land easily in relatively rough and unpredictable waters, moreover, should the engine fail, or an emergency landing be required, it simply drops into the water. Aside from about 10 seconds during take-off and landing, the AirFish8 has no contact with the water in cruise, so passengers experience no sea sickness, rocking, or pitching motions.
Helicopters, when used for sea travel, also tend to crash a lot. Airplanes operate in controlled environments with runways, set flight paths, and air traffic controllers; helicopters reach areas that are inaccessible by plane. Unfortunately, this makes conditions unpredictable and often dangerous. A google search for “helicopter crash” or “helicopter crash Afghanistan” results in seemingly endless reports of fatalities. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, general aircrafts (airplanes, helicopters, blimps, etc.) average 7.28 crashes for every 100,000 hours of flight time; helicopters alone average 9.84 per 100,000 hours – 35 percent more often per hour. Because of its stable flight dynamics, undetectable body, and rapid speed compared to other marine crafts, the AirFish8 is ideal for rapid response for natural disaster zones, high speed medical evacuation, oil spill recovery missions, special operations (infiltration and extraction), combat search and rescue, and coastal patrol, in addition to many more use cases.
The AirFish8 is fast, green, quiet, fuel-efficient, comfortable in rough seas, requires minimal infrastructure, and is arguably safer and more efficient than seaplanes, helicopters, and drones – it’s basically a no-brainer. While there are some flight limitations subject to weather, equally applicable to all high-speed marine vessels, why is it that more than 50 years after the Caspian Sea Monster came to life, that no one has actually commercialized ground effect vehicles?
The world has never been ready for disruptive technology
In 1976, Steve Jobs approached his former boss at Atari with a proposal – a third of Apple for $50,000. “So, we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’”
In the 15 years of Wigetworks’ existence, the directors have been consistently perplexed by the lack of interest in ground effect machines from institutions and companies alike. According to Ng, a typical response after explaining to would-be interested parties about why they bet their careers and reputation on the technology is: “… Yes, it looks very interesting and I can see the potential, but there must be some reason why this has not taken off…” No one is yet to provide some specificity as to why.
Clayton Christensen, author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma” has a rationale for why. Disruptive innovation, as coined by Christensen, is innovation that creates a new market and value network, eventually disrupting an existing market and value network to displace established market-leading firms, products, and alliances. Disruptive innovations tend to be produced by outsiders and entrepreneurs in startups, rather than existing market-leading companies, largely because disruptive innovations are not profitable when they first arise and require constant capital injections during development. However, once they are deployed into the market, the market goes crazy for it. Some notable disruptors include the personal computer and the cellular device, and their respective disruptees, mainframes and fixed line telephony.
Clayton postulates that successful companies invariably fail by focusing on sustaining innovation. For example, Apple just released a brand-new set of iPhones, that are really just the same as the old ones, but more expensive. While Apple collects rents from iPhones, its service offering remains dormant. While Amazon is busy bundling new services together like there’s no tomorrow, how long can Apple sustain itself as a landlord? Some say Apple used to be an inventor. Notably, the Macintosh and the iPhone are examples of the sustained innovation of the personal computer and the cellular device, respectively. Today, technology is developing faster than market demand, commercializing mostly in insignificant markets. By the time companies start paying attention to a disruptive innovation, they’ve already become the disruptee.
So, why is the AirFish8 disruptive? Christensen outlined five principles that govern the development of disruptive technologies:
- Companies depend on customers and investors for resources
- Small markets don’t solve the growth needs of large companies
- Markets that don’t exist can’t be analyzed
- An organization’s capabilities define its disabilities
- Technology supply may not equal market demand
According to Ng, leading successful firms are not interested in the AirFish8 because it is irrational for them to be. Early stage customers are in lower-margin markets in developing countries. Demanding commuters in the developed world, who are courted by leading firms, would likely deem the AirFish8 inadequate – it cannot fly close to the speed of sound or over land. With some modest R&D effort, however, the AirFish8 may outperform other high cost options someday. Importantly, its exact market is yet to be clearly defined. For example, there is currently a lot of interest from high-net worth customers from the Middle East, Japan, and the U.S, as well as military and paramilitary establishments around the world. Moreover, if there is no data, it is almost impossible to know what prospective customers want or can afford.
The AirFish8 is a ship, so naturally, its disruptee would be high-speed maritime transport platforms, typically that of modern high-speed catamarans or hydrofoils. To avoid comparing apples and oranges, a multi-criteria framework is likely required for substantive comparison. However, a more superficial comparison can yield a similar conclusion.
The AirFish8 is far superior to high-speed marine crafts – it’s faster, more comfortable, more fuel-efficient at high speeds, more environmentally friendly, and low draught which allows it to access shallow areas. Conversely, it is likely costlier to acquire, maintain, cannot currently travel at slow speeds, and building a large catamaran with a high payload is likely easier than building the corresponding ground effect vehicle. While future developments might augment the AirFish8 in these latter respects, in its current state, the AirFish8 is unlikely to disrupt high-speed catamarans.
Importantly, it is unrealistic to compare the AirFish8 with commercial aircrafts. Jet aircrafts can fly much faster and longer at lower costs, over land and with better weather tolerance. However, given that airports are not cheap or environmentally friendly to build (especially in developing countries), and that many coastal cities may be underwater within decades, seaplanes might gain back popularity – and the AirFish8 might gain more traction.
The most likely candidate for disruptee would be the seaplane, though, seaplanes are aircrafts, and the AirFish8 is a ship. The seaplane has only marginal superiority over the AirFish8 – it can fly over land, is marginally faster, and its range is marginally longer. Seaplanes, as discussed before, are significantly limited in capacity by weather, with greater operational costs. However, because the seaplane can fly over land, the amphibious seaplane is unlikely to be rendered obsolete.
Because the AirFish8 is yet to be brought to market, the notion of “disruptive technology” is therefore not quite as clear cut for the AirFish8 as it was for the personal computer and the cellular device.
Life is never fair
As investors and civil institutions continue to pile their moneys into software, the Internet of Things, and consumer technologies, it is timely to remember that pioneers of disruptive technology are rarely the ones who reap the financial rewards and recognition due. Philo Farnsworth invented the television; in retrospect, he never really made a dime. Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web – who the heck is he? Norman Borlaug saved billions of people through his contributions to modern agriculture technologies, effectively turning Mexico, India, Pakistan and other famine-prone countries into net exporters overnight; Mother Teresa, who saved very few and rebuffed modern technology, appeals more to mankind because she was a meek old lady. The founders of the AirFish8 will likely endure the same fate. Luckily, they care more about changing the world.
One perennial problem for the AirFish8 is regulation – is the AirFish8 a ship or a plane? For this reason, it will likely launch in the military space first, and subsequently the civilian space. Civil servants are always trying to fit square pegs into round holes. For example, alongside the GPS, the following inventions that are now commonplace in civilian life were first adopted by the U.S. military: microwave, duct tape, computers, jet engines, superglue, canned food, penicillin, wrist watch, walkie talkies, night vision goggles, sanitary napkins, jetpacks, freeze drying, blood banks and transfusions, aviator sunglasses, and ambulances.
The AirFish8 is likely heading down the same path.