Last year, Choose Paris Region, Groupe ADP, and RATP Groupe announced the Re.Invent Air Mobility initiative, intended to establish Paris as a leader in urban air mobility (UAM). Earlier this year, they selected 30 industry partners to move forward with the initiative, and on June 21, the first of those partners, Volocopter, demonstrated its Volocopter 2X eVTOL prototype at Le Bourget Airfield during the Paris Air Forum.
Shortly after the demonstration, I spoke with Alban Negret, head of Innovation & Corporate Venture at Groupe ADP, an international airport operator based in Paris. He shared the group’s vision and approach to developing urban air mobility (UAM) in Paris and beyond.
Alex Scerri: Alban, what is your role in Groupe ADP in relation to advanced air mobility (AAM)?
Alban Negret: Since the start of 2020 I was the project manager for advanced air mobility working within the Innovation team, which is a transversal unit reporting to the deputy CEO. We coordinate the different areas of expertise within the group such as operations and infrastructure. The scope of our innovation policy is wide, covering Smart Airport, passenger experience, new mobility solutions, and robotics. Since last June, I was appointed head of Innovation & Corporate Venture. So, urban air mobility is just one part of a very broad swathe of innovation projects and promotion activities across the group. We also have an investment arm and several minority-shareholding assets in our portfolio, such as Skyports, a leading infrastructure company for the emerging AAM industry.
Alex Scerri: What is the vision for Groupe ADP for AAM in Paris, and do you have any plans for the rest of France and beyond?
Alban Negret: Paris is the natural playground for this project. Since we own and manage the three main Parisian airports — Charles de Gaulle, Orly, and Le Bourget — as well as 10 airfields including one heliport, we are very well positioned to support the Paris region in better connecting communities between airports, suburbs, and city areas. Therefore, we have formed a partnership with RATP Group, the public transport provider in Paris, that has complementary expertise — mobility service, demand modeling — and assets. Furthermore, we want to establish Paris as one of the industrial hotspots for UAM to attract investors and create a significant number of new employment opportunities.
Together with RATP Group and the DGAC (Direction générale de l’aviation civile, or French Civil Aviation Authority), we are working hard to prepare for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, a catalyst event in terms of marketing reach and international coverage, by setting up two or three pre-commercial eVTOL routes. In parallel we are also coordinating with our other assets and subsidiaries across the globe. We want to extend the vision and to leverage what we are doing here in Paris to develop overseas projects as well. Through our consulting services we are supporting other operators with AAM in Turkey, the Middle East and we are now a large shareholder in GMR Airports, an Indian company.
Alex Scerri: What is the status of the vertiport construction at Pontoise, where the tests will continue after Volocopter’s successful demonstration at Le Bourget?
Alban Negret: The Pontoise sandbox will be established in two phases. We started the project about one-and-a-half years ago where we defined the concept and the potential test program that could be accomplished. Since then, it has been very fast-moving for an infrastructure project. Construction started a few months ago and the first phase, the airside part, is complete and operational and will host the first tests that will start at the end of this summer. This was done in coordination with the French DGAC, EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) and Eurocontrol as well as the other Re.Invent Air Mobility initiative partners.
We designed the infrastructure design and ConOps to be compatible with the current operations at this controlled airport with 50 to 60 movements per day. We had to ensure that the final approach and take-off areas (FATO), taxiways, etc. that we have built for AAM operations do not interfere with the present aircraft operations, which gives us a lot of flexibility to do our tests without being a hindrance to the legacy aviation system.
One challenge we had is that there are few if any formally published guidelines on how to design and build vertiports. The work we did will help developing the associated regulations as we share the knowledge we gain in the process.
Alex Scerri: You mentioned two phases. So, will the second phase be some passenger terminal and related facilities to test the end-to-end processes?
Alban Negret: Exactly. Phase 2 is planned for the start of 2022. We are working with Skyports to build a small modular terminal in a sustainable way, to test the complete ground processes and passenger experience. With this terminal we will be able to demonstrate the concept of operation to the local communities and to the authorities. A lot of testing can already be accomplished with Phase 1 but with the terminal in place it will be even more representative of real-world commercial operations.
Alex Scerri: How will you use this vertiport especially when it comes to public acceptance, even for non-participating third parties of the AAM concept?
Alban Negret: I think this is a fundamental topic. For technical and practical reasons, we could not launch this type of project at one of our bigger assets such as Paris – Charles de Gaulle. On the other side of the spectrum, we could have also waited for the OEMs to mature their technologies independently in isolation at their own test facilities. However, we wanted to be part of a community, where the inhabitants and local authorities could witness the technology’s progression firsthand while understanding its potential benefits for society. So yes, Pontoise will not just be a technical “playground” but also a full-scale public acceptance laboratory where people will be able to see and feel this progress and assess if they want it to be part of their future.
Alex Scerri: Do you think there is a vision and a will to have vertiports inside of the Périphérique in Paris’s city center core, or will Issy-les-Moulineaux heliport remain the most central location possible?
Alban Negret: Paris Heliport at Issy-les-Moulineaux will be a central location for development of this system in the city as it is already nearly compatible with the planned development of AAM. Together with our partner, RATP Group, we share the vision and will work to bring this technology to the Parisians, which, yes, would mean having vertiports inside of the “Périphérique” [circular highway around Paris City]. But it is not only for us to decide. We need to progress step by step with all the respective authorities and various administrations. However, for us it is very clear, in terms of final usage and target business model, entering the city center is a key point. Nonetheless, suburban operations also make sense in a large metropolitan area like Paris Region, with 12 million inhabitants widely spread over the territory. We are convinced that the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games will bring the momentum to cross this strategic frontier and test its feasibility.
Alex Scerri: Issy-les-Moulineaux is itself under some scrutiny with lease coming up for renewal in 2024. Can eVTOL technologies with the promise of less community disturbance be a factor to keep this facility open?
Alban Negret: The situation for Issy-les-Moulineaux is quite complex. At Groupe ADP and RATP Group, we believe that these eVTOL solutions possess three major technological breakthroughs. Compared to traditional rotorcraft, eVTOLs will be quieter, have less or even zero local emissions and increased safety made possible by using distributed electric propulsion.
These factors should help to support efficient and economically accessible urban air transportation for a wider tranche of Parisians. In time, these aircraft will gradually replace today’s helicopters, but it will not happen overnight. Another strong case is that besides commercial operations, eVTOL aircraft are well suited for security and EMS applications. Agreements between ADAC Luftrettung and Volocopter in Germany show the way forward.
Alex Scerri: In the EASA study on the societal acceptance of urban air mobility in Europe, published in May 19, Paris is the most suited city to have an airport shuttle and sightseeing using eVTOL. What are your thoughts?
Alban Negret: We have done our homework as well within Groupe ADP and we know that Paris is a prime candidate to introduce sustainable aviation and specifically for the urban mobility use. The configuration of the city is also very suitable, so we were not too surprised by EASA’s study. There are some points in the city which have considerable congestion on routes to the airports and most inhabitants live outside the inner city. Therefore, UAM can be a catalyst to reconnect the various communities around the whole Paris region and is ideal for airport connections.
Pre-COVID we had about 50 million tourists a year in the Paris region and that by itself is a great market to tap, for example to transport tourists between spots further afield from the center.
Alex Scerri: The same EASA study states “it is to be noted that respondents from Paris were the most skeptical and express a low trust level towards all authorities.” Why do you think this is the case and how will you work to improve public acceptance?
Alban Negret: Our own studies showed a more optimistic outlook for this case. It very much depends on the survey sample. When respondents are not familiar with the technology you could say it would be unrealistic to expect a reliable position on the topic. For example, if you are asking the same questions at an airport, you will probably get more positive answers. The respondents are in travel mode and could compare what such a service could offer them when compared to their current travel experience to the airport. The EASA study is very thorough, but it is a first step. We believe we will only be able to really gauge the Parisians’ level acceptance after witnessing direct demonstrations such as Volocopter’s flight on June 21.
I think all the people that attended this event were particularly impressed by the performance of the aircraft, especially in terms of low noise. This is the best way: bring people to the sandbox and let them see, feel, and touch this technology and they will themselves project the benefits.
Alex Scerri: Is there anything else you would like to share with the eVTOL community?
Alban Negret: I would finish off by reaffirming Groupe ADP’s commitment to develop this new application of underutilized low-level airspace. They are paving the way for the low-carbon aviation of tomorrow. For sure we do not look only at the aircraft and the infrastructure. We will consider all the elements that will make the UAM/AAM system as practical as possible to hopefully see commercial services in the Paris region by the end of this decade.