Aviation startup Seaplane HK is ditching the idea of battery-powered drones in favour of a hydrogen-fuelled aircraft named DragonflyX.
While delaying an expected announcement of a research partnership with Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Seaplane HK CEO Steven Cheung says hydrogen will be the future of urban transport.
“Prolonged use of nickel-based batteries will reduce the stability of the electrodes, resulting in a significant decrease in battery life and safety,” says the company in a statement.
The hydrogen fuel cell electric vertical-take-off and landing (eVTOL) craft is, Seaplane HK says, quieter and more efficient than other Urban Air Mobility (UAM) offerings. It will also be safer, Cheung says, claiming hydrogen, being lighter than air, will vent to the atmosphere in case of incident, and that the aircraft is equipped with a parachute.
Cheung says the service will be “more like a minibus”, rather than a “helicopter service for the rich”.
But while claiming a hydrogen aircraft could fly from Tuen Mun to Central in eight minutes, Cheung offered no specific details on potential licensing of the craft, which would face severe regulatory hurdles in a city where even electric tricycles are deemed illegal. Cheung says the firm will speak with Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department (CAD) about where and how to certify the aircraft, later on. The firm expects the aircraft to be in production by 2024. It also says the PolyU research tie-up was delayed due to paperwork issues.
A press release put out by Seaplane HK ahead of the event says the company is backed by Piece Future, Panasonic and Nokia, but later versions of the press statement removed all mention of these companies. The company says it will work on DragonflyX development out of Hong Kong Science Park under the government’s IDEATION programme, while Cheung says the company will list through a shell company “later”.
“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” says Cheung. “Hydrogen fuel is a new generation of environmentally friendly, safe and non-toxic new energy. Major car manufacturers have already developed hydrogen fuel cars and buses successfully. We hope to break the boundaries and introduce this technology into the aviation sector,” he says.
Recent research from IDTechEx suggests the sci-fi “air taxi” model may be out of reach of ordinary consumers’ pockets.
“Our analysis of air taxi / passenger drone operations within Urban Air Mobility suggests that there are frequently talked about areas for air taxi deployment which simply do not look viable, offering commuters no perceivable benefit at a greater expense,” says the IDTechEx report, calculating a trip cost for a typical eVTOL drone at around US$20.3 (HK$160) per passenger for a 10 km trip.
But IDTechEx says drones could become competitive at greater distances, estimating a US$72.7 (HK$567) cost per passenger for a 100km trip, and says aerospace and automotive manufacturers are “ramping up interest”. Earlier this year, Toyota invested nearly US$400 million in an eVTOL start-up Joby Aviation.
Seaplane HK launched in January 2021 with a pledge to build a fleet of 30 seaplanes connecting Hong Kong to the Greater Bay Area and claiming to be “the real Greater Bay Airlines”. Later the company switched to a drone model. Back then, the Civil Aviation Department said it was aware of “recent interests to operate seaplanes and unmanned aircraft in Hong Kong,” but that all aircraft operations must meet regulatory requirements, and that CAD had not, by then, received any application from Seaplane HK.
CAD has not yet responded to questions on Seaplane HK’s hydrogen drone plans.