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From Bergen to the World: Elfly's Noemi Seaplane Sets Sail on Electric Innovation
Interview with Elfly's CEO Eric Lithun.
Growing up in Bergen, Norway, Eric Lithun vividly recalls gazing out of his bedroom window, watching the seaplanes taking off, each carrying the day's newspapers to distant coastal destinations.
Today, Lithun is the CEO of Elfly, a pioneering company looking to usher in an era of sustainable short-haul air travel with its all-electric seaplane christened "Noemi."
The Noemi is set to be a revolutionary nine-seat amphibious aircraft powered by lithium batteries. Noemi will boast a spacious cargo door and a cabin designed for accessibility, making it wheelchair-friendly.
While its primary domain is water, it retains the ability to land on airfields, giving it added versatility.
With there having been some negative media reports about the potential of battery-electric flight in recent months, Lithun says that the aircraft can run on the technology of today, with the batteries being provided by US battery maker Electric Power Systems.
One element that will make it possible is the absence of a pressurised cabin, as the aircraft is not intended to fly much higher than 10,000 feet. This design choice significantly reduces weight and eliminates the need for complex certification processes. Lithun says Noemi will initially cover relatively short distances — around 100 nautical miles. "It's not pressurised; it has two engines," he adds.
Moreover, Lithun emphasises that the electric battery system lends Noemi stability, mitigating concerns about rough weather conditions.
Standard seaplanes are susceptible to flipping over due to their top-heavy configuration, with heavy fuel in the wings and engines at the front. In contrast, Noemi will house its considerable weight — approximately 1.5 tonnes of batteries — in the lower section of the hull. As Lithun says, “all the heavy, heavy stuff is at the bottom.”
Lithun anticipates advancements in battery technology will further enhance Noemi's capabilities. The aircraft's range could potentially be extended, or the payload could be increased to 1200 kg, or passenger capacity expanded.
First Norway, then the world
Initially, Elfy's vision is to connect the Norwegian Fjords, with a goal of 15 Noemi aircraft navigating the Norwegian coast by 2030. This initiative aligns with Norway's plan to make all domestic flights fossil-fuel-free by 2040.
Elfly highlights Norway's ideal geographical position for pioneering eco-friendly seaplanes, boasting over 1,000 fjords and 450,000 lakes. Proposed routes include the Bergen to Stavanger corridor, which accommodates 550,000 flying passengers annually, in addition to substantial numbers travelling by bus and ferry. Noemi promises to reduce travel time to under an hour on this route.
However, Lithun has far-reaching aspirations, noting that 80% of the world's population resides within close proximity to coastlines.
A better use case than eVTOLs?
Eric Lithun contends that Noemi can fulfil many of the promises made by electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft but with greater ease of social acceptance.
Using London as an example, Lithun argues:
“Nobody is going to take off and land at Piccadilly Circus with eVTOLs. Not going to happen. And you can't use the parks in London. And to use the rooftops, you have a neighbour who sees two of these things coming and going every minute. You are not going to do it."
Lithun is also sceptical about the idea of so-called vertiports, set points for eVTOLs to take off and land, given that it takes up real estate and “real estate isn’t for free. If you look at the nice drawings of vertiports, they are super expensive.”
For Lithun, electric seaplanes are a better alternative given that “80% of the world’s population lives 1000 metres from the water. So I say, they live by the airport.”
In Lithun’s vision, instead of vertiports, you would have a “floating dock system….a floating airport. Then you can….fly city centre to city centre.”
Why not retrofit?
When asked why Elfly doesn't opt for retrofitting existing seaplanes with electric motors, akin to Canada's Harbour Air, Lithun points out that the De Havilland Beaver used by Harbour Air dates back to 1947.
As a result, although he admits that “you could do a business case of retrofitting like Ampaire and so many others, you will never end up with the product of tomorrow.”
Looking ahead, Lithun sees a whole range of use cases for the Elfly. As well as landing near city centres, he imagines Noemi flying in places like “the Florida Keys; the Caribbean that has sequence operations; the Maldives.”
Lithun sees Japan as a potential market, where “a tonne of people live around the coastal areas and the islands of Japan that don’t have high-speed trains.”
In Asia-Pacific, he has also identified Indonesia and the Philippines — with many islands — as areas where the Noemi can serve a need.
Bridging the funding gap
When writing our upcoming book, Sustainability in the Air, it was clear that though there are a lot of great ideas in the sustainable aviation space, most never see the light of day because of a lack of funding. In fact, we’ve often heard the figure of $1 billion being mentioned as the figure you need to develop, test and certify a clean-sheet aircraft.
Lithun is realistic about the scale of the challenge. He told us that the company has grants from the Norwegian Government as well as money and guarantees from an initial group of investors, giving the company “$20 million as a start, a kind of base.”
Now, the company is looking to raise money globally. Here, Lithun again holds the Noemi up as a better bet than eVTOLs: “I think for international investors, we will be a really really interesting company”, in contrast to “a lot of eVTOL projects which have horrible science. Ground gravity sucks and hovering eats up the battery in like 30 seconds.”
Key to that is demonstrating that Noemi can have a return for investors: “We have to love the business case, but like the product”. Lithun emphasises that It doesn’t need to be the other way around, as is often the case for new startups in the sustainable aviation space. “We are actually using a lot of time in looking at how we can make money,” he assures us.
A future with a larger aircraft company
For Elfly, the grand vision extends beyond Norway's borders. Lithun envisions collaboration with industry giants like Airbus or Embraer, both of which are looking at next-generation aircraft projects.
This is due to the need for larger partners to scale production efficiently. "If we are doing this to save the planet, and [then] want to say that we will produce every single plane in Norway in our factory, it doesn't really scale," he states.
In his view, partnering with established manufacturers on licensing agreements leads to a future where we can remove combustion flights in short hops and give people a way to travel sustainably around the world.
Is this a realistic vision? Lithun emphatically believes in it.
“If we show you can get black numbers with it, and it’s green, we should try and spread it as a global product as fast as possible.”
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