Founder and director of the real estate developer Aqprim, in Bordeaux, Laurent Mathiolon has decided to diversify his business through innovation by developing Airnova, a concept of building allowing the landing and takeoff of flying drones in urban areas. He wants to raise 3 million euros for this project by the end of March. An avant-garde project, but probably not as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance, since the first practical work could soon begin in Gironde.
Anticipating the development of urban air mobility, Laurent Mathiolon, founder and director of the Bordeaux real estate development company Aqprim, created the company Airnova in September 2022 in the Port of the Moon. He confirms the launch of a 3 million euro fundraising, which he hopes to complete by the end of March. Airnova is also a commercial brand and an architectural concept with "vertiport Airnova": a high-rise building with a roof capable of safely accommodating air cabs and flying drones for delivery and even passenger transport. This avant-garde concept was developed for Aqprim by the Parisian architectural firm Leclercq Associés. The innovation has been patented in 2022.
"In a typical metropolis the size of Bordeaux, there are about ten sites where it would be possible to set up a Vertiport, either on the terrace or on the ground, near an airport, a train station, a sports area or a hospital. We currently have about ten sites under study, including five in Gironde. In addition to the metropolises, it is also possible to go to towns of a certain size located in rural areas," said Laurent Mathiolon for La Tribune.
Volocopter and Airbus are also involved
Air mobility in urban areas could seem like a far-fetched idea, but with the continued development of electric motors, we can see that a new sensibility is developing in this direction, as shown by the development by the German firm Volocopter, in Karlsruhe, of a helicopter with 18 electric motors that can be piloted by joystick. A two-seater aircraft named Volocity, topped by a kind of spider web riddled with small propellers installed vertically, which took off for the first time in October 2020 from the Pontoise airfield and which has a flight autonomy of 20 minutes for the moment.
This project echoes Vahana, the name of the autonomous, single-seat, electrically-powered flying drone demonstrator (with eight propellers) developed by Airbus since 2015. Aircraft manufacturers are convinced that flying drones will be the basis of the next aeronautical revolution. In particular because they seem to believe - rightly or wrongly - that traffic management in cities will never be fully satisfactory. At least, that's the commercial hook played by the Karlsruhe-based company.
"We are on the verge of certification".
"What do we offer? A way to avoid traffic jams and to reach your destination with more free time available", says Volocopter.
Its leaders, who want to put into service drones capable of transporting goods or passengers, estimate that they will be able to launch their first commercial flights in Paris and Singapore within two to three years... Have they been fooled? Nothing is less certain. Because if the overflight of urban areas by aircraft is highly regulated, the legal framework for this type of travel could evolve more quickly than expected. Especially since no potential operator would have the crazy idea of defending the introduction of autonomous drone flights, at least in the short term.
Read alsoDrones: towards tests of air transport in urban areas in Bordeaux?
"Flying electric drones are part of a decarbonized mobility. The first stage of this shift will be the transport of emergency medical equipment from one hospital to another. And even injured people. Two sizes of UAVs should be considered, with carrying capacities ranging from a few kilos to 500 kilos. People-carrying drones don't exist yet, but we're on the verge of approval," says the Bordeaux-based real estate developer, who points out that the landing platforms developed as part of "vertiport Airnova" will be equipped with articulated arms to retrieve the packages carried by the drones.
Drones carrying small packages are already in operation, not to mention the latest military drones that can carry over a ton of cargo.
The creation of the first air corridors under study
Because of the danger it represents, air transport in urban areas is highly regulated, when it is not simply forbidden, and Laurent Mathiolon does not hide the fact that Airnova is currently working on this crucial aspect of the issues.
"We are working with the DGAC (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) to build between two points in Gironde the first airspaces to allow drones to be able to fly. We are not in a science fiction scenario and there will be a pilot in the drones carrying personnel to ensure safety, while the latter will be teleoperated. Even if the technology is ready, there will be no autonomous drone flights. If the question of drones in urban environments is now being raised with new acuity, it is because it is linked to electric propulsion, which is accelerating rapidly thanks to advances in battery technology," says Laurent Mathiolon.
Civilian applications are potentially countless and could include the creation of cab drones or new flying firefighting units.
Apply standards that are already used for helicopters
As in many cases, part of the solution could come from military applications. The latest combat drones developed by the United States Air Force, the Reaper and Mojave models, have a weapons-carrying capacity of more than one ton... Designed for theaters of operation, these remotely operated military drones are large, with wingspans of 20 meters and more. As such, they are not really compatible with civilian interventions in an urban environment.
Laurent Mathiolon emphasizes that the landing platform is not the central point of his project, since there are already very precise standards that make it possible for helicopters to land on roofs, and these are included in the specifications of "vertiport Airnova".
"It's infrastructure to build, ad hoc buildings. But we will also have platforms on the ground. We will naturally be much more present in the suburbs than in the city center," confirms the head of Aqprim.
The instruction necessary for the adoption by the DGAC of the first air corridors dedicated to flying drones in Gironde will start this January and could last between six months and a little over a year. The three million euros that Airnova wants to raise between now and March should be used to finance the recruitment and investments needed to set up the first operational sites.