Equator Aircraft: Electric Seaplanes from Norway. An interview with Tomas Brødreskift
Norway is leading the way towards greater options for sustainable mobility. Already having the largest number per capita of plug-in electric cars in the world, the next step is making aviation sustainable. The Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority (Luftfartstilsynet) is already pushing to use electric planes for short-haul flights in the future. Working within this space is Tomas Brødreskift – an industrial designer with a strong passion for aviation who has devoted years of his life to developing his own aircraft company. He is building the very first hybrid-electric – or fully electric depending on costumers’ needs – seaplane aircraft available on the market. In this interview, Brødreskift, discussed with us his plans for this exciting and unique aircraft.
Equator Aircraft has quite a long history, can you tell us more about it?
Tomas Brødreskift: Between 2004 and 2007 I was studying industrial design, and at the same time also flying a private aircraft. My family owns an aircraft, so I was not only getting into product design, but also flying and getting to know how to create aircrafts. At that time, I was really struck by the lack of innovation and the lack of focus on new types of user experiences in aviation. There is a very limited number of designers in this industry and, as you know, in all industries that have to do with product design, there are always designers involved. But in aviation, it was still not so common to have designers as part of an aircraft project.
This was interesting to me and I saw the opportunity, as a student, to start looking into aircrafts because being able to design airplanes is something that I’ve dreamed about since I was six years old. I also love creating things and I like to draw. I’m not really a mathematician, a physicist or anything like this. I’m more like a sculptor or a typical designer. I have a lot of respect for the physics and the math aspects, but I’m more into the mechanics and the moving parts and the shaping of things. It seemed impossible for me to get into aviation because of the limited space for designers, but during my studies I did a few trial projects including my first aircraft design project.
I was just shocked over the results coming out of this process because I was By using the same type of industrial design process that you would use if you’re creating a vacuum cleaner or any other similar product. a really interesting airplane came out. It was shocking and I understood that same process had never been applied before of that process and that’s when I understood that this has never been done before.
When I was studying in Germany for a year, I met an engineer who had designed some interesting airplanes from the 60s, Günter Pöschel. He is about eighty years old now. He became sort of a mentor for me. I was talking with him about his designs and I was interested in his story because it was similar to mine in the sense that he didn’t have any formal background in aviation. I saw it was possible to take this path. He told me all about his travels around the world and what he experienced through his journey to create this company that he called The Equator Aircraft Company back in the seventies.
In the Photo: The rendering of Equator’s Seaplane Aircraft. Photo Credit: Equator
I wanted to carry on his legacy and follow in his footsteps. I was able to carry on his company name, and I took some of his ideas back to Norway when I started doing my university projects, focusing on the P2 Aircraft. This aircraft was based on some of Günter’s drawings, but I was adding new ideas on how the cockpit could be, on how the geometry is, or where things should be. When I was done with my degree, I felt like it was such an interesting concept that I really couldn’t let it go and I had to continue finding a way to build this aircraft. Of course, when you come out of college, you don’t have money, nor do you have people to do this. So I really went ahead and started to try to find a way to work as a freelance designer and then just earn enough money to be able to work full time on the aircraft. That meant that after having lived as a student for five years, I just had to continue living like that.
Since then, I just tried to gain the resources I needed through the Internet. We’ve got a lot of open-source student collaborations going, people that work on this for free and can at least get a good addition to their résumé and a recommendation from me. I think we had probably 40 or 50 people involved during the process. As an industrial designer, I’m lacking knowledge in areas of aerodynamics and physics and mechanics and things like that. I needed help because I could draw everything, I could design everything in 3D, but I needed people to verify my designs. After a couple of years, I was done with the basic design of the airplane and we started building it. We started building it in a garage and tried to find cheap ways of using carbon composite materials and similar stuff. My father got involved quite heavily as well; he’s an engineer and he can complement me on my skillsets, and I also have a neighbor involved that has built airplanes before. We were three people, with me on the project full time and the two guys in the evenings. We created this company not as a regular stock-based company, but as a Norwegian-type model. We have a cooperation where people can come in and work a number of hours to get ownership in the company. The process is very difficult because we didn’t have the experience, so we do a lot of trial and error, learning from our mistakes and moving on.
In the Photo: The rendering of Equator’s seaplane flying in the mountains. Photo Credit: Equator
Having to create the electric and hybrid system was one of the most difficult things. In 2011 we were trying to figure out how we were going to do that because we could make the airplane, but we would have some problems on the hybrid or the electric side. There weren’t any components in the world that I could buy off the shelf. Nor were there any motors that could run a hundred kilowatts which was what we needed. To get out of the water you need substantial power, so we applied to the government to get funding. But when you’re sitting there as a 29-year-old guy saying, “I’m going to make an electric sea plane,” it’s not something that people believe straight away. It took a long time, and after 20 applications, we got into one program which allows us to travel around Europe and find some new partners that can help us develop that system. One of those is a German partner called Engiro GmbH, electric motors. We felt that they could be good partners and it was also interesting for them to get involved in the aviation sector. We have created a system that we have been working on all the way from 2012 to today. We are doing a purely electric aircraft now, but we still want the hybrid to be an option in the future for long-range travel.
We’re still working on it, but it’s taken so long to get to that point. When you think you are 90% finished with an airplane, you still have a lot of work ahead. I’m just going through the process very slowly, that’s why it’s taken basically eight years to get to this point. We completed the aircraft last year and since then we have been tweaking minor details and trying to just make the aircraft flight-ready because there are so many things do. For instance, aviation authority experts come in and they need to see proof of every test and of every detail you worked on. We have been working for the last six months on getting all these documents up to date. We were creative in our garage, but we did not really document everything down to every detail, so we had to go back through our process and do so.
Currently I’ve done three taxi tests where we run the aircraft for up to about 35 minutes. I’ve found quite a lot of small things that I want to make better. I’m doing some improvements now on the control systems and things like this because we’re not only doing a new aircraft, but we’re doing a new propulsion system with the electric batteries.
In the Photo: Working on the Equator Aircraft in the factory. Photo Credit: Equator
Electrifying aviation makes people like you true pioneers. Building an aircraft is a complex process and it is understandable that it has taken you guys quite some time to work on this.
Yes, electrifying an existing airplane is very different to making a completely new airplane. It is also unique in the fact that we are doing an electric seaplane which I don’t think I’ve seen before. I really have a strong belief in a future scenario of networks of electric planes flying along the shorelines in the same way it was in Norway in the 1950s. Back then, there were a lot of airline companies doing services along the coast. We have a very long coastline, maybe 3,000 plus kilometers, and a lot of people living in places where they have to take ferries and drive a long way to get to the cities. This is just an example of where an airplane could cut your travel time down to a quarter of the time.
It’s very logical to me to look towards seaplanes as kind of a bridging of technologies between the aircraft of today and the flying car of tomorrow. I believe there is some space in between there, maybe a 20-25 year timespan, where we need different airplanes. That’s where I think Equator can be a big player because I think we can build a portfolio of aircrafts – from two seats, up to eight or ten-seat aircrafts with the same type of configuration. Then we’re talking about a lot of different kinds of markets and a lot of interesting visions for different countries around the world where our planes can be used in different ways.
The design of your aircraft is very different than any others, can you tell us more about what makes your design unique?
Utilizing this industrial design process while creating an aircraft is an extremely powerful tool because people don’t usually build airplanes based on a user-centric type of idea. They often go into the process as an engineer and focus much more on other facets, like the mission of the airplane rather than focusing on the human being using it.
That means that they are typically too small, too tight, and they don’t have very good ergonomics. The cockpits are usually very complex compared to the actual process of flying. If you put an industrial designer into the process, he or she will always start with the human being as the center of the project and try to figure out what the user needs. My user needs more space and a simplified control system.
When Equator’s plane is in the water it needs to be a boat. We did a lot of research on boats to make the cockpit. The interior carpet is more like a boat than an airplane. It has to be waterproof everywhere, and it has to be open so you can move around in the water. All these things came out of a typical industrial design process. I envision that industrial designers will be much more involved in aviation in the years to come because we can now demonstrate the proof of the process and its outputs.
You mentioned both hybrid and electric propulsion. Which will you be using?
TB: When we started the project, we were creating a vehicle that needed to have a range. The aircraft needs to fly more than a thousand kilometers because people that use these types of aircraft need to be able to go out for at least two hours each way – for example, the user may be in Toronto, Canada and needs to fly into the wilderness and back. From Norway if you want to get to the fjords and Greenland, you can’t do that on batteries alone. This vehicle needs to have range and it was always in our thoughts that we need to have a hybrid to be able to do that. We started creating a hybrid, but of course creating a hybrid means that you’re building a system that is probably way more complex than doing simple batteries. because batteries and electric motors are very simple. It’s a great thing to work with because it’s so simple mechanically, but when you put a combustion engine into the system, the complexity is to a level that when we saw how difficult it was to create this system, we thought, “okay, if we’re going to fly the aircraft within the next two years, we definitely have to make an electric aircraft,” at least just for the tests. Pure electric is much simpler and safer. The aircraft could later be converted to a hybrid. It is hybrid-ready with all the systems that you need. We just joined a new program with the government which might help take the hybrid system to a commercial level.
In the future, I want to be able to deliver an electric version of the aircraft as well as a hybrid. Customers will choose because if you want to fly just locally for one and a half to two hours, you can do that on batteries. You need to go further, and the hybrid will be able to do that. The aircraft will be ready for both scenarios.
In the Photo: The CEO Tomas Brødreskift and part of his team. Photo Credit: Equator
Would you be willing to partner with a bigger stakeholder to build this aircraft? Or do you think it can still be something that you can do yourself with the funding you can find?
I’m very open to any sorts of offers or partnerships because for me, personally, the goal is to get these aircrafts and this type of aircraft out into the world. If I have to partner with an existing company, it is absolutely something I’m open to. But the problem is that, historically, big companies don’t partner with startups at this early stage. I haven’t had any sort of discussions with anybody up to now because I think it’s too early basically. I think that we need to go our own way and invest in the tooling and work the way we have done for a while.
Once we have increased the whole value of the project, it might be more interesting for partners and other people to get involved. For now, we’ve got a new round of government funding for the hybrid system. We will create a lot of films and media content to try to raise the necessary $2.5 million that we need to go to production – we don’t need too much money because we’ve done all the research already. We simply need money to pay for a bigger team for three years and that will be enough to push us towards having everything ready to produce the airplane.