Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Hovercraft: Life on surface-effect ships in the Arctic

Arctic shuttle buses with marching propellers

28 june 2023

In the past few years, hovercrafts have evolved from miracle machines into a familiar part of the landscape. They carry out river cruises on the Volga, take tourists around Lake Baikal and regularly feature in reports on EMERCOM and Russian army training exercises. The high proportion of import substitution in the Russian surface-effect ships manufacturing industry, effective support measures and growing demand for reliable machinery have provided the impetus for this development. The Arctic has played no small part in this, becoming a virtually limitless market for all-terrain vehicles of all kinds, and hovercraft are no exception.

The principle of the nozzle hovercraft, in its most rudimentary form, is as follows: nozzles are installed in the flat bottom of the ship around the perimeter, which force air under the ship, lifting it up. They create bending streams of air as well as increased pressure. This makes it possible to compensate for the effects of centrifugal forces on air particles moving along curved trajectories. This creates a stable air cushion.

Today, hovercrafts are augmented with a 'skirt' of flexible material that further restricts air currents, provides increased flight altitude and high cross-country capability. Forward propulsion is provided by the marching propellers, located aft of the vessel. There are many other types of hovercraft—'skeg,' screen-rafts and their transitional forms.

The main advantage of hovercrafts is speed and cross-country capability. Thanks to low friction, some models can reach speeds of up to 110 km/h on ice and around 75 km/h in still water. They do not need an equipped shore and are not afraid of shoals, rocks and snags. What's more, they don't really need water. Hovercraft is great on ice, sand, bogs or any other relatively smooth surface. Low friction adds high energy efficiency, significantly reducing fuel consumption compared to other types of vehicles in similar conditions. For example, they are the only ones that can be used during freeze-up and ice drifts, which alone has ensured their popularity with rescue services and the military in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Circle. Civilian transport is also trying to keep up.

Domestic logistics on special vehicles

In the polar region, hovercrafts are not operated as gimmicks or transport for extreme conditions, but as shuttle buses. In Yakutia and Yamal, during floods, freeze-ups and ice drifts, and in normal times, the hovercrafts carry inhabitants of settlements almost all year round.

This business has the curious specificity of seasonal price fluctuations. Depending on the weather conditions and the complexity of the route, a hovercraft can take on varying amounts of cargo and passengers. The stronger the wind and more hummocks, the lower the payload. And this cannot but affect the price per trip. Bad weather may even stop the hovercraft from moving at all. This is due to high winds—hovercraft is vulnerable to it, as are high waves.

Among the disadvantages of hovercrafts are often cited in their high cost, as well as the difficulty in repairing the engines. In the past, when there was a shortage of spare parts and competent specialists in the polar region, these problems really hampered the development of transport links. Today, however, it is not such a problem. For example, the YNAA government is planning to purchase two Neptun-23 hovercrafts in order to establish passenger transportation from Salekhard to Katravozh during the off-season. They have a capacity of 22 people or 2.1 tons of payload. However, when you consider the cost of operating an alternative mode of transport, the helicopter, even the new hovercraft looks like a very economical solution.

The Arctic has become a dynamic market for domestic hovercraft producers. Their clients include not only regional authorities, the EMERCOM and carriers but also tourist firms. As the popularity of polar tourism grows, the need for all-terrain vehicles of all kinds and colours, including river cross-country vehicles, increases proportionally. For example, for the new 1,000-person campground, Norilsk is planning to purchase its own hovercraft to transport tourists comfortably. Many tour operators use the hovercraft to transport hunters and travellers along the AZRF waterways, noting their safety and efficiency.

Read more Russian all-terrain vehicles on duty in the Arctic: Burlak goes to EMERCOM exercises A mobile home for polar explorers


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