The Île-de-France Region, Choose Paris Region, Groupe ADP, and RATP Group held an event on Thursday to launch the first urban air mobility (UAM) trials at Pontoise-Cormeilles-en-Vexin Airport, located about 35 kilometers (22 miles) northwest of Paris.
Hosted at a Groupe ADP hangar, there was wide representation from various government entities and local jurisdictions engaged in the project. This event comes just over a year since Choose Paris Region, Groupe ADP, and RATP Group launched the Re.Invent Air Mobility initiative, which started this process. Seeing the considerable challenges of 2021, the speed at which progress has been made is remarkable, especially for the infrastructure part of the project.
Augustin de Romanet, chair and CEO of Groupe ADP, stated that ADP and its partner Skyports, a vertiport owner and operator, are committed to have Pontoise as the first European vertiport. It will include all the ancillary infrastructure for a commercial terminal, in addition to the airside works that have been completed. The test schedule will not be limited to flight tests and will also include proving the end-to-end experience for the traveling public. Volocopter plans to start flight trials in early 2022, and other manufacturers will join later. This will build up gradually to more public demonstrations culminating at the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Catherine Guillouard, chair and CEO of RATP Group, highlighted the importance of public acceptance, and limiting noise disturbance is one of the factors that will be crucial for this acceptance. RATP Group, which runs the public transport network in the Paris Region, has a specialized facility that studies the aural impact of its current operations and how these integrate into and affect the urban environment. The same work will be extended to include UAM, which is seen as an additional and complementary service to today’s network.
On the practical level, UAM trips will be bookable on the same mobile application that is used for other modes of transport, as multimodality will be a cornerstone. Going back to acceptance, she stated that inclusivity is a key factor, and keeping trip prices affordable is paramount. Their business plan is looking at passenger trip fees in the €100 ballpark. Once the concept is accepted, she believes this sector has a huge potential to be an important economic growth area for the near future. She closed her remarks by reiterating RATP Group’s steadfast commitment to UAM.
I spoke to Marie-Claire Dupuis, director of strategy, innovation and development at RATP Group, and asked her if they were planning on operating any urban mobility aircraft themselves. She said that this was not on the cards at the moment, but they would be providing the vertiport infrastructure, the know-how, and the data for urban traffic flows that will be necessary to optimize any integrated network. As for the expected locations of the vertiports, this was still in the study phase, Dupuis said, and although they are primarily looking at locations close to the Périphérique, a ring road that encircles central Paris, other central zones were being considered in discussion with other stakeholders.
Alexandra Dublanche, vice president of the Île-de-France Region and president of the Choose Paris Region agency, said that the Paris Region was the top employer for aerospace jobs in France. However, there is still more potential to be tapped, especially in the expected growth in the recovery following the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic had a greater impact on the aerospace sector in general, but the forecast progression of UAM will be an important brick in the expected upturn. Dublanche was pragmatic in her comments, stating that we should not expect UAM to be a standalone solution to traffic congestion, but an additional tool in the transport network.
Speaking to Dublanche, I asked her what was being done to support the local entrepreneurs in addition to attracting external talent through Choose Paris Region. She said there are already numerous schemes in place, and there were many examples of French startups that are making their mark on the local UAM ecosystem.
In an upbeat speech, French Minister Delegate for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari announced that the first UAM pre-commercial demonstration trips are planned to be flown between Issy-les-Moulineaux heliport in Paris and Saint-Cyr aerodrome, and between Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Le Bourget airports and vertiports in central Paris. He stated that France should not wait for others to shape this industry but instead, should be one of the leaders. He believes that this work should be coordinated at the European level and that the vertiport at Pontoise was a concrete example of this cooperation.
The event included a live demonstration of the Thales detect and avoid system, and three potential collision scenarios were demonstrated using two helicopters — one standing in as an eVTOL aircraft — and a small drone. Thales’ Marie-Pierre Guilbert did a live commentary of the three scenarios. This type of system will be a highly desirable feature as the low altitude airspace gets busier with manned and unmanned traffic.
The Thales system works similarly to airborne collision avoidance systems (ACAS) used in commercial aviation today, and will also take into account the maneuverability potential of eVTOL aircraft. Skyports also flew its drone on a 7-km circuit around the airport. Integration of drone traffic with eVTOL air taxi services will be another airspace interaction that will be tested in the trials at Pontoise.
Pipistrel Aircraft’s Velis Electro, the first fully-electric aircraft certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), demonstrated the potential future for electrification in general aviation. Zero local emissions and a noise level that was drowned by camera shutter noise when the aircraft flew just at a few hundred meters is something that must be witnessed in person to be appreciated.
Airbus and Volocopter were both present with their full-size flying prototypes, the CityAirbus and VoloCity respectively, and Airbus also displayed a scale model of the CityAirbus NextGen. Both aircraft are expected to participate in the flight trials. Vertical Aerospace had a model of its VA-X4 on display and has also signed up to test its aircraft at Pontoise.
When the half-day event came to a close, I was on the bus traveling back to central Paris from Pontoise, stuck in rush hour traffic for the one-hour-plus ride that an eVTOL would fly in a quarter of that time. I mused that UAM will not come a minute too soon. In truth, the palpable optimism and energy evident in this meeting augurs well for the future of this sector in the Paris Region for years to come.